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Freshman Marcus Santos-Silva (8 points, 6 rebounds) was one of several VCU “bigs” who impressed Tuesday.

By Andy Lohman

Tuesday night was big in every way.

The return of Head Coach Shaka Smart was big. The man who took the Rams to the Final Four was back in the house that Havoc built. As he walked out before player intros, his ovation was big. A fan base with a cathartic recognition of a former leader. But it was nothing compared to how big the noise would get.

The Siegel Center was ear-splittingly loud, a volume that felt like it was going to cause seismic activity.

“The fans were crazy tonight, unbelievable,” senior forward Justin Tillman said. “It definitely brought us a lot of energy.”

The crowd was big. The 105th consecutive sellout was recorded at 7,637, but it would have been believable at 10,000. The arena pulsated with every swell of action, a black and gold orchestra conducted by a manic Mike Rhoades, who urged Ram Nation to get loud whenever the Longhorns reached the free throw line.

The match-up was big. VCU is a young team looking to turn the corner, and had a shot at a signature win for an NCAA Tournament resume. Texas is as big of an athletic department as you can get. A Big 12 school, from the state where everything is bigger, with a nine-figure revenue mark.

Finally, the matchups were big. Texas forward Mohamed Bamba stands at 6-foot-11 and is a likely lottery pick in the NBA Draft. VCU’s big men were up to the challenge, fueling a big comeback in the second half. In just over eight minutes, the Rams erased a 57-38 Texas lead and took a 63-62 advantage with 3:52 to play.

The man that hit the go-ahead three-pointer was VCU’s 6-foot-7 forward, Khris Lane.

“Oh man, it was amazing,” Lane said of the crowd when his three went down. “I said something to myself, but I couldn’t even hear what I said to myself because it was that loud.”

In the second half alone, Lane poured in 14 points after going 4-for-5 from three-point range. While he didn’t find his game inside, his shooting ability allowed the Rams to stretch the floor. Two of his threes within a minute of each other cut the Texas lead from 17 to 11 with 10:21 left.

“When you have a Khris and a Justin and they’re making shots, and a Sean [Mobley], you can really spread the floor with a versatile big guy,” Rhoades said. “And we found Khris and he got it going.”

Sophomore De’Riante Jenkins, more of a wing than a traditional big, but still, a large man, accounted for a four-point swing by himself. After knocking down a jumper, he stole the ball from Kerwin Roach on the ensuing possession, drew a foul, and knocked down two free throws to make it 57-50 with 9:15 left.

Tillman recorded his 18th career double-double with 22 points and 10 boards. His contribution to the comeback was a rebound on a rimmed out Sean Mobley three attempt, a lay-up through a foul and a made free throw to cut the Texas lead to six with 6:57 remaining.

While the veteran bigs were great, freshman forward Marcus Santos-Silva stepped up on the big stage. In just 18 minutes, he collected eight points and six rebounds, continuing a trend of efficiency. Coming into Tuesday’s game, Santos-Silva was second on VCU in rebounds per game, but just ninth in minutes per game.

Matched up against Bamba, he played active defense and got inside for good looks on the offensive end. Down by four points with about five minutes left, Santos-Silva contested Matt Coleman’s missed lay-up. On the next play, he pulled a Rajon Rondo-esque move to fake out Bamba and sink a lay-up to cut the lead to 62-60, before Lane’s three made the Siegel Center erupt in earth-shattering noise.

“The best thing about him is he really wants to be a good player, so he listens to the coaches,” Rhoades said of his impressive freshman. “He doesn’t have all the answers, he listens. And I think every week he’s getting better and better.”

While the comeback was impressive, it still wasn’t enough to secure the win. Texas executed on their final possessions and walked away with a 71-62 victory.

“It’s cool to say we’re close, but we don’t play for moral victories here at VCU. We go away disappointed just like the other team would if they lost to us,” Lane said. “So, yeah, we’re close. But losing like that is unacceptable here.”

Although the frustration is understandable, it’s clear to see the pieces coming together for the Rams. On a national stage, against a big opponent, VCU got big-time performances from its big men, and is one step closer to turning the corner. Soon, it’s going to blossom into something big.

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