RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart is about as cerebral a coach as there is in college basketball, one who can effortlessly quote Mark Twain, Maya Angelou and John Keats in the same conversation. But Saturday, following VCU’s 82-52 victory over Virginia Tech at the Richmond Coliseum, he was, but for a moment, reduced to something more along the lines of Bill S. Preston, Esquire.
When asked to elaborate on how it felt to watch his team stage an is-this-really-happening 37-2 blitzkreig that blew the game wide open in the first half, Smart pondered, grinned and leaned into the microphone.
“It was fun,” he mused.
Sometimes less is more. What Smart’s taut assessment revealed was both his delight in the Rams’ success, as well as the sheer magnitude of the performance. In one 11-minute segment, VCU turned a 6-0 deficit into a 37-8 blowout. It wasn’t so much basketball as art. In the Havoc genre, this was the Mona Lisa, painted in less time than it takes to make a meatloaf.
That run, which VCU finished with 31 straight points, keyed the Rams’ most dominant performance of the season, one which saw sophomore Melvin Johnson explode for a career-high 27 points and eight 3-pointers.
In reality, the performance, given that it came against an ACC opponent off to a 7-3 start, was one of the most impressive in Smart’s five seasons. The Rams turned Virginia Tech over 27 times and outscored the Hokies 42-5 off turnovers. VCU turned Virginia Tech over on 40 percent of its possessions and recorded a school-record 22 steals.
This type of effort, for Johnson and VCU as a whole, was a welcome sight for the Rams. Following a loss at Northern Iowa and a win over Wofford in which the Rams never seemed to get in rhythm, everything appeared to click. The Rams began the year with high aspirations and reached No. 10 in national polls, but putting together a complete came has been a challenge. That was not an issue Saturday.
In this game, the first between Virginia Tech and VCU since 1995, the Rams called on their trademark full court pressure to pick apart the Hokies with surgical precision, then used Johnson as a sledgehammer to finish the job.
“This is probably the best game we’ve played so far this year. We’re 13 games in. I thought that our guys really showed a lot of spirit and energy, and we didn’t really let up. We kept going with that and carried it through. We’ve had our moments this year where we’ve played well for stretches six, eight, 10 minutes and we’ve let up. I didn’t think there was as much of a letup.”
“I think we were all feeding off of Melvin, and it was just a good night,” said senior Rob Brandenberg, who scored his 1,000th career point in the game. “We had guys coming in and kept the energy up, and it was a night where everybody just did their job. We just played hard, everybody played for one another, and it showed out there.”
VCU’s big run seemed eerily like the Rams’ 32-4, game-opening rush against George Mason in the CAA Semifinals in this same building in 2012, but without the letup that allowed the Patriots to make a game of it. This was all VCU, all Havoc, all night.
For Johnson, it was a breakout night. He’s always shown a knack for scoring the ball, from trademark floaters, to 3-pointers to nifty spin moves in traffic, but this was something else altogether. For much of last season, Johnson struggled from the outside. This year, he’s been better, shooting 36 percent from three coming into Saturday, but nothing like the supernova he dropped on Virginia Tech. In the first half alone, Johnson hit all six of his 3-point attempts and scored 19 points – in eight minutes.
Johnson says that after his second three, one which gave the Rams a 9-8 lead with 15:33 left in the first half, he knew it was going to be a big night.
“My adrenaline immediately started rushing. I was all over the place, and then from there I went to Coach Smart and was like, one more, so he actually tried to run a set [play]. It actually worked. I got another shot off, and then from there, all he kept mentioning was Troy [Daniels]. He was like, Troy made 11, you got six, let’s beat it. He kept trying to run these elevator plays for me, and honestly it was a surreal feeling. It felt like everything I was going to put up was going to go in,” Johnson said.
“We lost him in the zone a little bit, and then once he got going and hit a couple, he was on fire,” said Hokies’ Coach James Johnson. “He hit some shots, he was wide open when we lost him, then a couple where we were right there in his face.”
While Johnson didn’t get Daniels’ record, he did give VCU the type of stretch-the-floor 3-point shooting that helped make the Rams dangerous offensively last year. Heck, if you squinted while watching this game, you’d have a hard time telling the difference.
Smart said the Rams held an optional additional shootaround Friday night at the Coliseum, and Johnson appeared primed for a big night.
“We were here for about an hour. The guy didn’t miss a shot, so coming into the game today, multiple guys on our staff said, ‘he’s going to have a big night tonight,’” Smart said. “He’s a guy that, again, we don’t want him to hesitate. We want him to shoot the ball. He can be just as good of a shooter as Troy Daniels was for us, but he’s just got to learn when that thing comes you can’t wait and hesitate, you’ve got to fire it if you’ve got it.”
In addition to the Havoc that flummoxed Virginia Tech ball handlers and Johnson’s sharpshooting, the Rams also saw senior forward Juvonte Reddic return to form with 10 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. Reddic, who has five double-doubles this year, averaged 4.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in VCU’s previous two games.
“Melvin put up a big number, but I felt like Juvonte was as important as anybody on the team tonight,” Smart said afterwards. “He just had a different spirit. Talk, body language, talk, energy, went out after rebounds, and I thought he did a nice job overall of leading our team in all those areas that don’t necessarily find the stat sheet and contribute to winning.”
All told, the Rams put together a masterful performance that showcased the type of potential that led pollsters to fall in love with the team in the preseason. But Smart knows repeating it is the real trick.
“Yeah, it doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “It would be great if you could flip a switch and play this way every single game. If I could do that then every year we’d win 35 or more games, because the way we played tonight I think we can play with just about anybody. But what we have to do as players and as coaches is learn from what brought us success just like we need to learn from what brought us setbacks in former games down to the smallest detail.”