RICHMOND, Va. – Troy Daniels hit the first 3-pointers before the game even started, and the arc exhibition didn’t end until more than two hours later.
Whether or not the VCU grad inspired his former team is a matter of conjecture, but the Rams certainly followed his lead, riding a season-high 13 three-pointers (on 25 attempts) to a crucial 92-75 win over George Washington Wednesday night at the Verizon Wireless Arena.
Daniels, who set a school single-season record with 124 three-pointers for VCU last season, was in Richmond while the NBA D-League, where he plays with the Houston Rockets-affiliated Rio Grande Valley Vipers, is on its all-star break. Daniels was called on for a pregame promotion which challenges participants to hit shots to win pizza. After a successful layup and free throw, Daniels swished his 3-point attempt. Then, from halfcourt, he banked home his second attempt to win free pizza for the entire arena.
The fans weren’t the only ones feeding off of 3-pointers, however. Once the game started, VCU feasted by hitting 8-of-14 in the first half alone to roll to a stunning 45-28 advantage. In the second half, the Rams were less prolific and more opportunistic, beating back a George Washington comeback with timely treys. Meanwhile, the Colonials were 0-of-8 from three in the first half and 6-of-18 for the game.
VCU’s shooting performance paved the way for a 92-point output, the most allowed by George Washington this season. The reward for that effort is sole possession of second place in the Atlantic 10 heading into Saturday’s championship-quality matchup at Saint Louis.
Leading the way Wednesday was the man who is perhaps Daniels’ heir apparent, sophomore Melvin Johnson. A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Johnson hit five from long range against the Colonials.
“A few shots went in, I got a little pep in my step, and from there it was history,” Johnson said.
While Johnson and Daniels are dramatically different players, Johnson has shown explosive potential as a 3-point shooter. Earlier this season, he buried eight 3-pointers against Virginia Tech.
But lately, VCU Coach Shaka Smart says he noticed a tinge of doubt, a moment of hesitation in Johnson’s form, and pushed his sophomore to play loose and shoot when open.
“The two practices after Saint Joe’s, he said I’ve been measuring up my shot, you know, hesitant,” Johnson said. “So for the past few days, he’s really been putting emphasis on not hesitating, and whenever he mentions that, he brings up me being at St. Benedict’s, when I didn’t have a care.”
Behind Johnson’s carefree scoring and 6-of-8 shooting in the opening period, VCU’s lead grew to as many 21 in the first half. Meanwhile, the VCU defense pressured George Washington into 14 turnovers, and those miscues often led to open looks from beyond the 3-point arc.
But the Colonials, who shot 73 percent (19-of-26) from the field in the second half, pulled within 59-54 with 9:19 left. Johnson immediately buried a triple from the left wing to keep George Washington at bay. A short time later, senior Rob Brandenberg and Johnson hit back-to-back threes from opposite corners to shove the margin back to 15 at 72-57, with 7:27 remaining.
Later, George Washington’s Isaiah Armwood sandwiched a pair of buckets around a Treveon Graham layup to trim VCU’s lead back to single digits at 79-71 with 4:07 remaining. Again, Brandenberg responded with a 3-pointer, the Rams’ last of the night.
The Rams’ shooting prowess allowed VCU to do something it could not in a 76-66 loss at George Washington on Jan. 14: bust the Colonials’ 1-3-1 zone. VCU was 9-of-28 (32 percent) in that contest. In all, Johnson was 5-of-8 from beyond the arc, Treveon Graham, who finished with a game-high 25 points, was 3-of-6, and Brandenberg was 2-of-3 to lead the Rams.
“We were just in attack mode,” said Graham. “I think, down at GW, we were more laid back on our heels, so I think today we just found the gaps and attacked the open man and knocked down the shots.”
The performance revealed that the high end of VCU’s potential, which includes a dynamic turnover machine on defense and a knockout-blow-delivering 3-point shooting offense, could lead the Rams deep into March.
Daniels’ 3-point shooting, and even just the threat of his shooting, has been missed this season. It’s hard to replace 124 threes. Not only does a shooter of that caliber accumulate points like Wednesday’s winter storm heaped snow on VCU’s downtown campus, but it spreads the floor for other players.
It’s imperative that VCU shoot the ball well from beyond the arc, because the Rams rank 290th nationally in 2-point shooting percentage (45.5). But threes can cure a lot of those two-point ills. On Thursday, they did. It was the first time since Dec. 21 of last season, in a win over Longwood, that VCU had hit more than 10 three-pointers while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. Smart knows that if the Rams are hitting handfuls of threes, they’re hard to beat.
“When the 3-ball goes in, I think it helps the whole team because that’s what moves the scoreboard the fastest,” Smart said. “And guys get fired up about making threes. We had some made threes that were exactly how we want to get them. We get steals, we throw it ahead, we make the shots. We push the ball, we throw it ahead, we get in the lane, we kick out, we hit the shot. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”