RICHMOND, Va. – Before he clipped Toledo Tuesday, Briante Weber made a stop at the barbershop.
Weber had recently noticed a haircut on Instagram, a fade with a lightning-bolt-like shape in the back, and paid a local barber a visit before he joined his team at the arena Tuesday afternoon. By the game had started, Weber had morphed into something of a charge of electricity himself. Repeatedly, the supercharged guard in a headband rose up to shock Toledo, until the 15th-ranked Rams were left with an 87-78 victory at the Verizon Wireless Arena.
By the time they powered down the kinetic Weber Tuesday evening, what remained was this smoldering stat line: 18 points, 9 steals, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and zero turnovers.
“I hate when college coaches talk to opposing players, particularly before or after game, but tonight I couldn’t help myself,” admitted Toledo Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk. “He is a game-changer. He is an absolute game-changer. I had to stop him when we were going through the line to tell him how much respect I have for him. If he’s not the best defensive player in the country, I don’t know who is.”
It wasn’t just the gaudy box score that made Weber’s performance unforgettable. It was the senior guard’s penchant for making plays in moments that Toledo will not soon forget – ones the Rockets won’t be able to erase from their memories, even if they run the DVDs over with the team bus.
Weber’s masterpiece of basketball theater culminated in two game-altering sequences late in this March Madness-quality slugfest. First, with Weber came up with a steal, then hit a 3-pointer from the right wing off an offensive rebound, to push the Rams in front 73-68 with 4:25 left. It was, at the time, VCU’s largest lead of the game, and a blow that finally wobbled a Rockets team that is a safe bet to ruin a few office pools in March.
Then, with 2:37 left, Weber snatched a rebound and raced down the floor, where he found Melvin Johnson for his third 3-pointer and a 78-72 advantage. Weber’s steal and coast-to-coast layup on the ensuing Toledo play effectively ended the Rockets’ upset bid and chiseled Tuesday’s performance into VCU lore.
“In the last three minutes, last four minutes of the game, I pride myself, we pride ourselves on getting team stops. Whatever I have to do. Whatever me and my teammates can do to get team stops, that’s what we’re going to do. Whatever it takes,” an understated Weber would say later.
It’s a tough sell to cast a player’s effort, however spectacular, in among the program’s finest when there’s a Final Four banner giving watch over your court. But even if though it was a non-conference game in November, Weber was spectacular, and Tuesday’s game was perhaps the best of his outstanding career.
VCU Coach Shaka Smart isn’t content to let traditional statistics offer the final word on his team’s and player’s effectiveness. The typical box score has so many gaps and leaves room for vague assumptions. A battalion of graduate assistants and managers work to close those gaps by tracking every imaginable measurable stat. He uses some of that to produce an “effort chart”, a practice that dates back to Smart’s days as an assistant coach at Florida. Smart says Weber’s score of 62 in Tuesday’s game was the highest he’s ever seen. He considers a score in the 30s to be a “really good” game.
“For a guy to get 62 in a 40-minute game on the effort chart, it’s phenomenal,” Smart said. “He just flies around. He got his hand on the basketball…when you stuff the stat sheet the way he did, then stuff adds up.”
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Weber is the first player to hit 18 points, 7 assists, 8 rebounds and 9 steals since Lester Hudson (who finished with a quadruple-double) did it for Tennessee Martin in 2007. Weber’s own scoring, combined with his steals and assists, led to a total of 53 of VCU’s 87 points.
Meanwhile, Weber’s march towards possible history got a jump start. The Chesapeake, Virginia native now has 305 career steals, 80 shy of NCAA career leader John Linehan of Providence.
Weber didn’t do it alone, certainly. Treveon Graham and Johnson provided 22 points each and buoyed VCU during rough waters as Toledo looked to steal the type of win around which you build an NCAA resume. Graham’s 12 second-half points were crucial, but Weber was the difference-maker Tuesday.
The Rockets were as good, if not better than advertised. Toledo won 27 games and the Mid-American Conference’s East Division last season. The Rockets returned five of their top six leading scorers, including point guard Julius “Juice” Brown, like Weber, a Cousy Award Watch List member.
But Weber was ready.
In his first game back from suspension, Weber managed to spark the Rams with more than just his trademark on-ball defense. His turnoverless line would be the envy of Eric Maynor, Joey Rodriguez or Darius Theus. Weber’s three 3-pointers were also a career high.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Weber said of his return. “I was so excited I had to calm myself down.
“I didn’t feel any different. I just went out there, and I’ve got to play with a clear mind. I can’t let anything bring me down. When I’m in between those lines, I don’t think about much, other than get getting a team win and doing whatever coach needs me to do.”
Smart, pointing out that Weber’s performance, while superlative, was not perfect, agreed that his senior point guard’s emotions were pushing the point of productive in the game’s early stages.
“I just knew it, and I told him, you’ve got to have a level of discipline even while you’re trying to do that, and I thought in the first half Julius Brown really made him pay a few times. Jonathan Williams made him pay when Bri gambled and was going for steals. In the second half, he was more sound,” Smart said.
A sound Weber allowed for a scintillating finish, one that provided VCU with its 21 straight home win and sent the 51st straight Siegel Center sellout crowd home happy.
“I thought tonight he was a winner,” Smart said. “Which is the best thing you can say about a guy.”
He was, in a word, electric.