BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Amid the chaotic celebration, Briante Weber hobbled over to the ladder. With the help of his teammates, he ascended toward the rim for the first time in weeks, and snipped the last remaining loop of the net. With the snap of the scissors, he freed the net from the metal rim and officially cut VCU loose of its late-season quagmire.
Weber’s symbolic act punctuated a dizzying VCU sprint to its first Atlantic 10 Championship. The Rams, preseason favorites relegated to the No. 5 seed after losing six of their final 11 regular season games, shocked the league with four wins in four days to claim the title. The final victory came Sunday, as the Rams held off Dayton 71-65 in a thrilling A-10 Championship Game at Barclays Center.
At the final buzzer, Weber, his right knee immobilized following season-ending knee surgery, hopped to midcourt to celebrate before breaking down in tears as he was mobbed by teammates.
It capped a week that redefined VCU’s season. Last week, the Rams were a team struggling to find an identity in the long shadow cast by Weber’s Jan. 31 torn ACL. For four years he had been the engine of VCU’s high-energy brand of basketball and the emotional backbone of the program. But as abruptly as Weber’s career was cut tragically short, VCU found its championship form.
“Words really can’t explain how proud I am of these guys,” said Weber, the first player to win three A-10 Defensive Player of the Year awards. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for us, when I went out with an injury, and then us winning, losing, everybody hopping off the bandwagon and so forth.
“But just know behind closed doors we had our talks and all our emotional stuff; when we step in between those lines, from March to the last bit of February, we kind of found ourselves again and that’s what we need to keep building on that right now.”
Weber’s loss was devastating to VCU, which was ranked 14th at the time. But Sunday’s victory – one that seemed improbable as recently as Wednesday – allowed the Rams fulfill a promise they made to their fallen point guard.
“When I went out, Jan. 31, they all came together and said, ‘Bri, we’re going to cut down the net, and you know who is going to be the last one holding the net?’ They told me it was going to be me, and I believed them,” Weber said, a snippet of the net threaded through his championship hat’s strap. “And now we get here today, and I was the one cutting down the net. That made me very emotional.”
“We told Bri when he went down, we were going to do it for him,” said Tournament MVP Treveon Graham, who finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds Sunday. “The rest of the season was for him. We dug down and everybody had to find themselves. JeQuan [Lewis] and Johnny [Williams] had to step into their role. And coming into this tournament, Johnny really stepped up being a freshman, he really attacked and he really believed in himself and I think that really helped us and help JeQuan get to where he needed to be. Bri was always there for us, his enthusiasm, his energy is always there. It’s great to be here now.”
Since the injury, Weber has served as a fervent cheerleader and coach from the VCU bench. Despite one bad knee, he rarely sat down during games and he continued to dress in full uniform. Even though he could no longer play, he wanted to lead.
“It really, really kills him every time he can’t take the court, and his team does take the court,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “His attitude has been so good, and he’s been so great in the locker room with our guys on the bench. And he gets hit with waves of emotion ‑‑ and I knew he would after the game, win or lose. I told him, we would not have done this without you, and he knows what I meant. What I meant was, we would not have done this without him after he got hurt. I’m not even talking about what he did on the court for us; and he’s an all‑league‑caliber player. But after he got hurt, that’s no way we are able to win this championship without him.”
With Weber cheering them on, VCU finally found a way to win without him this week in Brooklyn. Following an opening victory over Fordham, VCU dropped Richmond, Davidson and Dayton, the same three teams that recently comprised the Rams’ first three-game losing streak in nine years.
The Rams did it by redefining what they were without Weber. Point guards Lewis and Williams played some of their best ball of the season. Lewis had 15 points Sunday and hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left to secure the title.
Melvin Johnson, a sleek-shooting guard, rediscovered his 3-point stroke. Mo Alie-Cox, who earned a spot on the All-Tournament team, grew up before our eyes with an 18-point, 8-rebound effort against Davidson in the semifinals, and a workman-like 13 and 4 in the championship contest.
Doug Brooks hit big threes throughout the tournament and came up with a critical steal and assist with 55 seconds remaining when Dayton had drawn within two points. Freshman Terry Larrier, who entered the tournament shooting 64 percent from the free throw line, hit 17-of-18 in four games, including 4-of-4 in two crucial 1-and-1 situations in the final 40 seconds.
“It’s just a relief,” Graham said. “All the hard work that we went through this season, all the adversity we had to go through. When Bri was out, everybody had to get a new role and everybody had to step up, and just the satisfaction to know that all hard work paid off.”
A short time later, the champs gathered inside their hotel to watch the NCAA Selection Show. At the front of the room sat the A-10 Championship trophy, a glistening prize from one of the most memorable weekends in program history. Seated in the crowd, watching intently was Weber, wearing the Barclays Center net around his neck.