RICHMOND, Va. – When you begin to pick up the pieces, you’ve got to start somewhere. For VCU, which suffered a humbling loss at Davidson on Thursday, that place was two years ago. To move forward, the Rams had to look back momentarily.
On Saturday, it helped produce an imperfect 71-60 win over George Mason in VCU’s regular season finale at the Verizon Wireless Arena. It was a start.
Working with a short turnaround following Thursday night’s 82-55 loss at Davidson, VCU Coach Shaka Smart showed his team clips from an 86-68 win over UMass on Feb. 14, 2012.
Those clips were not selected at random. That game featured a UMass squad in the midst of its best season in years. They were confident and fun. At the time, it was an A-10 must-watch game. VCU tightened its grip that night and forced 24 turnovers in a fan friendly, wide-open, 79-possession gem.
“Coach just reminded us of how VCU plays, the VCU way, and he showed us a clip of two years ago in the A-10 against UMass, the style of play and how the game was going,” said sophomore Mo Alie-Cox, who finished with 11 points. “So that really put a reminder in our heads about how we should play and an attacking mindset, and that’s what we really tried to do here today. “
VCU’s recent three-game losing streak was starting to have a cumulative effect, and Smart wanted to remind his team of the Teflon days when they flew around the court and played carefree.
There were certainly moments like that Saturday. George Mason was a good test case for a team making adjustments on the fly. The turnover-prone Patriots withered under VCU’s pressure for the second time this year. George Mason threw the ball all over the gym on the way to a 24-turnover evening. The Patriots actually shot the ball well (58 percent) when they didn’t give it away, but all those empty possessions produced a .90 points-per-possession offensive effort.
The UMass clips resonated, Alie-Cox says. More than X’s and O’s, there was an attitude about those Rams that stood out.
“Nobody giving up. When a play didn’t go your way you respond, you clap, you move onto the next thing, everybody supporting each other, the spirit. Everybody’s excited. I think we were lacking that the past couple games because we were losing. So we just tried to pick that up today,” he said.
From Smart’s perspective, there were signs of progress. For the fourth straight game, the Rams struggled to make shots (38 percent), but overall, he was still pleased to see the team creating chaos defensively, while dictating tempo on offense.
“I thought we did a better job tonight with that,” he said. “I thought our pressure was much better. We got some really good traps. We were able to force some turnovers. Far from perfect, but it was better.”
Whether it was the emotion of the Senior Night celebration, the film clips, something else or some combination of factors, Treveon Graham flew out of the lockerroom a notch higher on the aggressiveness scale. He took 15 shots in the first half and scored 17 points as VCU built a 33-19 lead.
He cooled off in the second half from the field, but his aggressiveness helped send him to the free throw line four times in the final 3:21. He made 6-of-8 from the line.
“I just came out and attacked,” Graham said. “The players told me to go out there and play my game, so that’s what I did, just went out there and attacked from the get-go.”
“We always run a lot through him, but …it reminded me of Brad [Burgess] three years ago,” Smart said. “I think there’s a feeling some times on Senior Night, and I don’t mean this in a selfish way at all because those guys are very unselfish, but it’s, hey, this is my time, this is my night. I felt that way with Tre with the way he asserted himself early.”
Saturday’s win was a step, an opportunity to celebrate victory and recognize the power of that feeling and what it felt like getting there. The Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament opens for VCU on Thursday. The future is now, but the Rams hope that spending a moment in their past this week can help them negotiate that road.