Briante Weber provided 13 points and four steals in VCU's win Saturday.

Briante Weber provided 13 points and four steals in VCU’s win Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – They call him the Freight Train, and that’s what Treveon Graham resembled as his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame rumbled down the sideline midway through the second half Saturday night.

Graham was chasing down a rebound, and despite his heft, the junior guard slipped past two Saint Louis players, grabbed the ball at midcourt and drew a hip-check foul. His momentum carried him into the path of 5-foot-9 VCU Coach Shaka Smart, who corralled him with an enthusiastic bear hug. The normally stoic Graham broke character and flashed a healthy smile.

It turns out, Smart was about the only person who could catch a Ram Saturday night. Saint Louis, ranked 10th in the country, certainly could not, as VCU staged a wire-to-wire 67-56 victory behind an opportunistic defense and a 49th straight sellout crowd at the Verizon Wireless Arena that lurched towards frenzy at every opportunity.

The victory was meaningful on a number of levels, for history – it was the highest-ranked team VCU had ever defeated at home – for the Rams’ NCAA Tournament resume, for its Atlantic 10 seeding, but it may have mattered most for pride. Since the Rams joined the A-10 last season, the Billikens were the only remaining member of the league VCU hadn’t cracked. Saint Louis defeated the Rams twice last season, once in St. Louis and once for the A-10 crown in Brooklyn, and then again at the Billikens’ Chaifetz arena on Feb. 15.

“It was definitely important. We had a mindset of payback from last year when they beat us in the championship game. Of course that’s always on our mind,” admitted junior guard Briante Weber, who provided 13 points and four of VCU’s 12 steals. “They had yet to come to VCU, and we wanted to give them the impression of what VCU’s like when you come in here.”

VCU upset 10th-ranked Saint Louis Saturday night before the 49th-straight sellout at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center,

VCU upset 10th-ranked Saint Louis Saturday night before the 49th-straight sellout at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center,

Amid a pulsating sea of gold – the product of an advertised “Gold Out” – VCU (22-7, 10-4 A-10) whipped itself into an aggressive, defiant state.

The Rams knocked the Billikens (25-4, 12-2) onto their heels early in the first half by ramping up the defensive pressure and crashing the offensive glass. It was turnovers and second-chance points that helped VCU push its lead to as many as 15 points late in the first period. The Rams turned the Billikens over nine times in the first 20 minutes and used 11 offensive rebounds (Saint Louis had 12 first-half rebounds total) to produce a 13-0 margin in second chance points. VCU, despite Saint Louis shooting 50 percent (11-of-22) from the field, led 38-28 at the break.

Off the bench, freshman Mo Alie-Cox and junior Jarred Guest, both forwards, helped control the inside. The pair combined for six offensive rebounds, while Alie-Cox added five signature blocked shots. They also combined for 11 points.

“That’s a point of emphasis every game, but especially going into this game,” Alie-Cox said of the Rams’ work on the offensive glass. “Coach was mainly putting it on me and Jarred. He was like, keep attacking on the glass, and get every rebound you can. He always tells us that no one can stop us when we have our mind set to it.”

“I think that’s what you want from your bench,” said Smart. “I think those guys came in and gave us a great energy lift. They were very active all over the glass. Mo blocked shots. That’s probably the best thing that he does. He was also very physical. Our team has a more sturdy presence when he’s in the game.”

The Billikens spent the remainder of the game playing catch-up. Despite a second half full of March Madness-level intensity, Saint Louis drew no closer than eight points the rest of the night.

Freshman Mo Alie-Cox finished with 6 points, 3 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.

Freshman Mo Alie-Cox finished with 6 points, 3 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.

A-10 Player of the Year favorite Jordair Jett was his usual self with 18 points, but VCU limited Saint Louis’ four other starters to a total of 23 points. Dwayne Evans, who burned the Rams for 21 points and 10 rebounds two weeks ago, was 2-of-11 from the field and finished with four points.

In the end, it wasn’t VCU’s offense that overcame Saint Louis’ vaunted pack-line defense, it was the Rams brand-name defense, Havoc. Both in the full and half court, the Rams sped up a veteran Billikens’ squad to the tune of 17 turnovers. While the Rams shot just 39 percent in the game, they turned it over just six times, and outscored Saint Louis 23-8 off turnovers. Meanwhile, Graham’s 17 points gave VCU just enough offense.

The ramifications of the win beyond Saturday need time to become fully realized, but they’re there. The most obvious is that it walks third-place VCU, a game up on UMass, closer to a top-four seed and a bye in the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn.

But further down the road, this win will only be exceeded the VCU’s win at Virginia on the Rams’ NCAA Tournament resume. If there was any crack through which VCU’s NCAA Tournament hopes could have slipped before Saturday’s upset, that opening is most likely gone now. In all reality, the Rams are likely playing for their seed and for their first A-10 Championship from here on out. But Smart isn’t in the business of weighting wins and tweaking the Rams’ NCAA cover letter.

“I mean, it’s a big, big win…it’s a huge win,” he said. “But it’s not the only game we’re going to hang our hat on. That’s something for the selection committee to look at. For us, it’s a good win. We feel good about some of the progress we’ve made, but we need to get better, and we’ve got some big games coming up.”

One of those games could be a rematch with Saint Louis, which remains in first place despite losses to VCU and Duquesne this week. But if that happens, the Billikens will have to do so knowing the Rams landed the most-recent blow in this exchange. The series is no longer one-sided. It’s the A-10’s hottest rivalry now.

“We were just hungry,” said Weber of the win. “We were a hungry team, and we wanted it. So we just went out and took it.”

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