BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It was a game against Richmond that originally jolted VCU into its darkest stretch under Shaka Smart, and it might have taken a game against Richmond to shock the Rams back to life.
After two crushing losses to the Spiders this season – a third if you count Briante Weber’s knee – VCU found a way to look a little more like itself Friday on the way to a heart-pounding, come-from-behind, 70-67 Atlantic 10 Quarterfinal victory at Barclays Center.
The win sends the fifth-seeded Rams back to the A-10 semifinals, where they’ll face top-seeded Davidson at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Bronx native Melvin Johnson enjoyed a strong shooting performance for the second straight night and finished with 23 points for the Rams. He hit 5-of-6 threes in the first half as VCU grabbed a 37-36 lead. When his jumper abandoned him in the second half, Johnson found other ways to bolster the Rams, including a steal and breakaway layup and later an assist on a go-ahead 3-pointer as VCU scored its biggest triumph, emotionally and practically, since January.
It was a VCU victory with a cathartic bent.
The Rams were nationally ranked and in the midst of a 12-game winning streak when a game with the rival Spiders on Jan. 31 altered the course of the season. Not only did VCU lose that game at the Siegel Center, it also lost Weber to a torn ACL in the waning moments. The Rams closed the regular season with a 5-6 stretch and lost heartbreakers to St. Bonaventure (at the buzzer), La Salle (in double overtime) and again, Richmond (also in double overtime). Once 7-0 in league play, the Rams slipped to the A-10 Tournament’s No. 5 seed.
VCU has spent the last six weeks trying to find itself without Weber, who was not only the Rams’ starting point guard, but their emotional cornerstone.
On Friday, the Rams looked a little more like that team from January. Despite a largely splendid performance from Richmond, VCU maintained its confidence and held on to make all the right plays in the final minutes. The Rams had swagger again.
“We put our backs against the wall, and we have to redefine our identity,” Johnson said. “Bri’s a heck of a defender, probably the best in the country, and of course we needed that, but at the same time we have to do what we can. Over time we’ve just been battling. Getting healthy and battling.”
Friday’s game was much the same way, a battle. VCU, in the midst of a five-game stretch in which it has shot less than 40 percent in each contest, shot 52 percent in the first half, including 8-of-13 from three. Richmond, meanwhile, shot 62-percent in the period to keep pace.
Midway through the second half, it appeared that VCU’s recent struggles would get the best of it again. The Spiders, pushing in transition off VCU turnovers and long rebounds, used a 9-0 run to take a 48-40 lead with 13:40 remaining.
“Honestly when it was 40-48, there was slight doubt, but at the same time, when you lose a little bit of confidence, coach says you’ve got to fight,” Johnson said.
VCU kept fighting, but Richmond’s Kendall Anthony, a 5-foot-8 hyperlapse in Nikes, kept making plays. He finished with 26 points, and his layup with four minutes left gave the Spiders a 58-52 advantage.
Since Weber’s injury, VCU has lost four games by five points or less. There was always one or two plays that weren’t made. At Richmond, it was a rebound off the fingertips. Against La Salle, it was one stop in regulation, and so on. But on Friday, VCU made the right plays down the stretch.
JeQuan Lewis responded with a 3-pointer that made it 58-55. A short time later, Mo Alie-Cox grabbed an offensive rebound to keep a possession alive. Johnson eventually found sophomore Doug Brooks for a go-ahead 3-pointer in the corner with 1:37 left. A possession later, Alie-Cox put the Rams in front for good with a traditional three-point play. The Rams, who entered the game shooting 64 percent from the free throw line this season, hit 16-of-19 from the line.
Meanwhile, Anthony showed that he’s human, missing the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:07 remaining, followed by a turnover under heavy pressure on Richmond’s next possession.
Not only did the win keep VCU’s A-10 Championship hopes alive, but it was the shot in the arm for which the Rams have been searching since Weber’s injury, one they hope will fuel them the rest of this weekend and into the NCAA Tournament.
“As much as [a team] can be set back in one day between the loss [to Richmond] and the injury, that’s how much we were set back,” said Smart. “I think we are still in the process of kind of rebuilding and getting back to who we want to be approach-wise and mentality-wise. This was a big day for that because our guys respect Richmond and how good of a team they are.”
DAVIDSON ON DECK
VCU’s win sets up a rematch with league regular-season champ Davidson and offers a chance to expel one more bad memory.
A 82-55 loss at the Wildcats on March 5 was no doubt the lowest point of VCU’s recent struggles.
“I think our legs are not going to be a factor because they just humiliated us on ESPN a week ago,” Johnson said. “I think this is where we mature and say we don’t care about how our bodies feel. This one of those games where you have to step up as a competitor. That’s a great team, so I feel it’s going to be a great game.”
VCU and Davidson split the season series. The Rams claimed a 71-65 win at the Siegel Center on Jan. 7.
The Wildcats survived a La Salle upset bid earlier on Friday. Davidson trailed by as many as 18 points, but earned the victory on a Tyler Kalinoski layup at the final horn.
SHAKA SMART POSTGAME
VCU PLAYER POSTGAME