BROOKLYN, N.Y. – An unfortunate consequence of poor shooting is the tendency to worry about more poor shooting. The key to breaking out, Melvin Johnson believes, isn’t more thinking, but less.
Johnson, who has battled shooting slumps this season, looked confident and comfortable Thursday as he stroked 5-of-8 shots, including 4-of-7 from three, to help pull fifth-seeded VCU to a 63-57 win over 12th-seeded Fordham in the second round of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament at the Barclays Center.
In his last two games, Johnson is 7-of-13 from three. He finished with 16 points Thursday and hit a critical trey with 2:31 remaining as VCU kept a persistent Fordham at bay.
His revival comes at a good time for VCU, which is looking to break out of a shooting funk, and needs scoring from any player not named Treveon Graham. As a whole, the Rams (23-9) didn’t find their shooting stroke Thursday. VCU shot .301 (18-of-59) from the floor, a fact which kept Fordham (10-21) knocking at its door for 39 minutes. But Johnson and Graham ultimately provided just enough baskets and VCU was able to track down enough of its misses to secure the victory.
The Black & Gold grabbed 20 offensive rebounds and turned those into an 18-12 advantage in second chance points. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough.
The win sets up a third meeting this season with rival Richmond Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Barclays.
Johnson, a Bronx native playing in front of friends and family, is VCU’s most prolific 3-point shooter. But when shots stopped falling for him earlier this season, it got to him. The more he obsessed over missed shots, the more he missed them. He says it took a fresh perspective to help the ball start finding the bottom of the basket.
“Sometimes you get into your own head and it’s hard fighting yourself and figure out the answers by yourself,” He said. “But as of late, I’ve just said, forget it. The next couple of weeks are senior weeks, so the least I could do is play with my head down and try to get some wins for our seniors.”
When Johnson’s at his best, there are few spots on the floor from which he’s not a threat. His game is fueled by his freewheeling playground instincts and a deep reservoir of confidence. That confidence has wavered at times, and when it has, Johnson has become more passive. He didn’t look or sound passive Thursday.
“You can’t miss a shot you never take,” he said. “I’m going to try to be as aggressive as I can possibly be to win some more games for Treveon, Jarred [Guest] and Briante [Weber].”
VCU and Fordham traded the lead nine times Thursday and were tied another six. VCU appeared to be flirting with disaster when a 9-2 run gave Fordham a 49-44 lead with 9:10 remaining.
But VCU grinded down the lead the hard way. Graham, who corralled eight offensive rebounds in the game, ran down one of his own misses for a layup that led to a traditional three-point play with 8:15 on the clock. A short time later, Mo Alie-Cox tracked down a Terry Larrier miss for a go-ahead dunk with 4:02 left. VCU would not trail again.
At the same time, VCU was turning up the heat on defense. Fordham produced four straight fruitless possessions at the game’s most critical juncture and watched as VCU staged a 14-3 run.
The final nail was Johnson’s. Following an Alie-Cox block of Fordham’s Jon Severe, Graham found Johnson on the left wing for a 3-pointer with 2:31 left that gave VCU a 58-52 advantage that proved insurmountable.
Despite Johnson’s performance and a 22-point (9-of-20 field goals) effort by Graham, the game did not offer a solution to all of VCU’s shooting issues. It was the fifth straight contest in which the Rams shot below 40-percent for the game. VCU is 5-7 this season when it shoots below 40 percent from the field.
“We’re going to shake it,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “It’s just a matter of when that dam is going to break.”
However, Johnson’s return to form is still good news for a VCU team that needs scoring punch. Consider it possibly the first leak in the dam.
RICHMOND, PART III
VCU’s reward for Thursday’s victory is fourth-seeded Richmond. The Rams and Spiders have met twice this season, with Richmond winning both. VCU and Richmond also met three times last season, with the Rams earning the season sweep. Richmond will attempt to return the favor.
The rivalry is a bitter one, and the game will be an opportunity for VCU to exercise a few demons. The Spiders snapped the Rams’ 12-game winning streak earlier this season and later pulled out a 58-56 double overtime victory on Feb 25.
“It’s significant – well, not really the number of times, but just that they’re playing them right now. We had a really tough loss there a couple of weeks ago,” Smart said.
“No mater where it is, it’s going to be a good game when we step onto the floor because we’re both competitors…and when we get onto the floor we want to win, so it should be a good night,” Graham said.