RICHMOND, Va. – The shot you’ll remember will be Treveon Graham’s clutch fadeaway 3-pointer in the second overtime. That dramatic shot with 2:14 left finally sent 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa to the ropes, but it was the work of Graham’s supporting cast that kept the Rams fighting long enough to pull out a heart-pounding 93-87 win over the Panthers at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center Saturday.
Graham, VCU’s leading scorer and a legitimate All-America candidate, knocked down a pair of free throws with seconds remaining and finished with a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds. Graham put in yeoman’s work Saturday night, but it was what he didn’t have to do that was notable about VCU’s win.
Especially on offense, the Rams have been a two-man show of late between Graham and Melvin Johnson. But against the previously unbeaten Panthers (9-1), VCU received points from 11 different players. The Rams did so by moving the ball. VCU assisted on 20 of its 33 field goals Saturday night.
Those numbers are in stark contrast to the last three games, when Johnson and Graham accounted for 61 percent of the Rams’ scoring. Against UNI, that duo scored just 35 percent (33 of 93) of VCU’s points. The Rams’ bench provided 31 points, the second-highest total all season. Only the 64 bench points VCU scored in a runaway rout of overmatched Maryland-Eastern Shore earlier this season topped Saturday’s reserve output.
“Our bench production is what won us the game,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “Our bench was better than it has been earlier in the year. We still have to keep improving, but today was a step in the right direction.”
Earlier in the week, Smart commented on VCU’s need to find additional scoring options to Graham and Johnson, and the Rams responded. The contributions came from everywhere.
Touted freshman Terry Larrier, mired in a shooting slump, scored nine points in nine minutes. Larrier hit his final two 3-point attempts to snap out of a 1-of-12 slump from beyond the arc.
Sophomore point guard JeQuan Lewis played some of his best ball of the season, flying around the court to find shooters. He scored five points and tied a career high with 6 assists before fouling out in regulation.
Freshman Justin Tillman gave 16 energetic minutes in the post, adding 8 points, 3 rebounds and a block, while classmates Jonathan Williams and Michael Gilmore made the most of their limited minutes.
But one of the more unexpected heroes of Saturday’s win was sophomore guard Doug Brooks, who provided 5 points and 4 rebounds in a career-high 20 minutes.
The box score really doesn’t do justice to Brooks’ impact. Smart turned to the Florida native down the stretch and Brooks responded more often than not with solid on-ball defense. It was he and senior Briante Weber that snuffed out Wes Washpun and Northern Iowa’s final possession in regulation. With Brooks guarding the ball, the Panthers were unable to get a shot off before the final buzzer.
Brooks’ biggest moment, however, was his corner 3-pointer with 4:36 left in the second overtime that gave VCU the lead for good. Brooks came into the game averaging 3.6 points and 0.4 rebounds this season.
“I did think Doug gave us a lift. He fouled too much, but he was able to come in and play some defense on some of their guys that was able to get Bri off the ball a little bit,” Smart said.
Even among VCU’s starters, there were critical supporting plays. Notable among them were the two free throws hit by sophomore Jordan Burgess, a 66-percent career free throw shooter, after he stepped to the line for the injured with 2:17 left in regulation.
The victory was an important one for the Rams, who were searching for an NCAA-resume-building win after losses to top-10 foes Villanova and Virginia, as well as a tough road loss to rival Old Dominion. In a 74-57 loss to 7th-ranked Virginia last week, VCU’s bench scored four points.
Smart knows that if VCU’s opponents have more to worry about than just Johnson and Graham, the Rams will be that more dangerous. With a week to prep for Northern Iowa, Smart was able to emphasize each player’s contributions to the overall stew.
“I think those guys, for the most part were in the right frame of mind,” he said. “We spent a lot of time with them this week on what your mentality should be coming off the bench. Let’s face it. Everybody wants to start. Everyone wants to be the star player, but if you’re not, then you need to come in and help the team win. And to do that, it starts on the defensive end and then you need to be ready when your number is called on offense.”