RICHMOND, Va. – At some point, late in regulation of Wednesday night’s 67-63 double overtime loss to Richmond, as Treveon Graham took the ball for the umpteenth time, his lungs likely burning (and not just from all the floating sweater vest fibers in the air), his legs probably feeling like Jell-O, I wondered when his body would just quit. Shut down. Go on strike. Possession after possession I watched as he slogged through the clogged paint, took abuse and readied for more.
And that was before he willed an improbable VCU comeback into existence by – I don’t even know what to call it anymore – Grahamagic?
What followed was about an hour of the most emotionally draining, mathematically unlikely and just plain crazy basketball I’ve witnessed while on the VCU dime.
Teetering on the edge of full-on collapse early in the second half, VCU rallied from 16 points down to force overtime. With 2:06 left, the Rams were still down eight and shooting a very comeback-unfriendly 30-something-or-other percent. But then a steal and a few free throws, and a three and another steal and an airball and another steal and a couple of missed Richmond free throws and then a 3-pointer so deep Graham wouldn’t try it in H-O-R-S-E and then a ShawnDre’ Jones prayer that agonizingly bounced three times on the rim after the buzzer….and boom. Overtime, just that simple.
Oh, but wait. In overtime, VCU takes an eventual three-point lead with seven seconds left, fouls Richmond with 4.1 on the clock and then watches as Richmond purposely misses the second free throw, gets a perfect deflection off VCU and then runs a great inbounds play to tie the game. Double overtime, just that simple.
That is the most abbreviated version of Wednesday’s madness. It doesn’t do it justice. VCU got off to a rough start, fell behind by 16, took its first lead of the game with 1:17 remaining in the first overtime and was a deadball rebound away from a win.
In the end, I saw two teams that were absolutely gassed, playing a game of chicken. Six players in the game saw more than 40 minutes, including Graham, who played 45 and finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds. They kept coming at each other, kept taking punches.
It’s been a little bit like that for VCU since Briante Weber’s injury. They lost one road game at the buzzer and another in double overtime without Graham, only to recover with three straight wins.
There have been excruciating moments. VCU’s last three losses have come by a combined 11 points and have featured a total of four overtimes. In all three games, VCU was a bounce here, a tipped ball there, away from a win. Basketball can be a little cruel that way sometimes.
It’s been said that adversity reveals character. This team is evidence of that. The last 30 days or so have been trying, from Weber’s injury to these close losses. But when I look out on the floor I see Graham grinding. I see JeQuan Lewis throwing his body all over the floor. I see Mo Alie-Cox wielding his 250 pounds like a blunt object. I see resilience. I see perseverance. I see guys absolutely laying it on the line for each other.
Richmond outplayed VCU pretty thoroughly in the first half Wednesday. That much is true. But VCU never stopped charging. How can anybody who watched Wednesday’s game, or the La Salle game, or the St. Bonaventure game, lose sleep over the effort?
Losing to your rival stinks, but these guys are gutting it out every night. The team isn’t perfect – and is perhaps, even more imperfect since Weber’s injury – but these are the kind of guys you can and should root for. The stretch run in the Atlantic 10 isn’t getting any easier, but the talent is still there and the intangibles – the attitude, the heart – are there. These are the kind of guys you hitch your wagon to.
“Our guys have been doing that all year, particularly on the road. I think the resolve and the response our guys showed was terrific,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “In terms of response, I think it says a lot about ours. It’s been a strength of ours this year.”
On his radio show last week, Smart talked about the difficulty coaches face in terms of players committing to winning. He called it the No. 1 problem confronting college coaches. I don’t know what challenges Smart faces with this group day-today, but I know that when the game tips off, these guys are bought in. This group is committed. It doesn’t always lead to a win, but if you’ve got that, you’re going to win a lot more than you’ll lose. I’m banking on these guys. On to Saturday.