PUT A BOW ON IT

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VCU finished 26-10 and won its first Atlantic 10 Championship in 2014-15. The Rams were ranked No. 25 in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

VCU finished 26-10 and won its first Atlantic 10 Championship in 2014-15. The Rams were ranked No. 25 in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

Sorry for the dearth of correspondence since Portland. I promised I’d return to comment on the season that was, but had some family stuff to address.

I’m back now, and in my stead, I see that Mike Litos, as he often does, has succinctly summed up many of my own feelings on the 2014-15 season and the NCAA Tournament, but better:

The loss of Weber was a tectonic shift. Gone was the frenzied piranha havoc defense. Gone was the senior point guard. Factor in the number two scorer and number five rebounder in school history suffered a significant injury.

This was not November and we were not playing Bethune Cookman with months to figure it out. This was February in the A10, and they didn’t blink.

While Shaka kept us a preoccupied with coaching vagaries like the process and the plan, he and his staff was busily re-crafting where the chess pieces would go. Roles would change.

It got worse before it got better, but to the credit of the players they never lost focus. They believed.

And it came together over those four days in Brooklyn.

Before he dove into the underground, mid-major Pied Piper Kyle Whelliston used to tell us, “It always ends with a loss”, a cold reality for all but the national champion (or NIT/CBI, but even those are pretty hollow).

That last loss is always the toughest, and has the power to skew the impact of the previous 35 games. Although I would have selfishly loved to stay two more days in the Pacific Northwest because I love Portland and I love basketball, the legacy of this team is not one afternoon in Portland against Ohio State. No, it’s four days in Brooklyn.

I’m sure VCU’s 1996 and 2004 CAA Championships, which ended extended NCAA droughts, were emotional nights. Those who were there can feel free to share their stories. But I can’t imagine it approaching what we felt at Barclays this March, watching Briante Weber hop to center court in celebration, then climb that ladder. For me, it’s right there with Eric Maynor’s Dagger and the Final Four. Chills. All of it.

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PORTLAND NOTES: RUSSELL OFFICIALLY CRAFTY, BROOKS BREAKS OUT FOR VCU

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Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Much of the talk surrounding VCU’s NCAA Tournament Round of 64 match-up with Ohio State has centered on Buckeyes’ star guard D’Angelo Russell, and for good reason.

Russell, a 6-foot-5 freshman, was recently named All-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The Louisville, Kentucky native ranks first nationally among freshmen in scoring (19.3 ppg) and is third in assists (168). Should he declare this spring, Russell is likely a top-five NBA Draft pick. NBADraftExpress.com has him third in its most recent mock draft.

VCU’s game plan will likely dedicate a chunk of attention to slowing down Russell, who has shown little difficulty adjusting to college basketball. A deft ball handler, Russell has also hit 90 three-pointers this year and leads Ohio State in rebounding (5.6 rpg). But it’s his passing skills that have people talking. From one-handed, laser bounce feeds to eye-popping spin passes in traffic, Russell’s vision, and the ability to get the ball into small spaces makes him especially dangerous.

VCU’s Michael Gilmore can vouch for Russell’s skills. They were AAU teammates with Each1 Teach1 in Florida. Gilmore soon realized that Russell wasn’t like other point guards.

“There would be times [in the huddle] where he’d just yell at me, roll, roll, roll after I set screens for him because after a couple of times where I didn’t think I was open,” Gilmore said. “I started trusting him with it. He’s a very good passer.”

Gilmore also has first-hand knowledge of how Russell’s scoring and passing ability play off of each other.

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VIDEO: RAMS HEAD TO PORTLAND

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FIXED IN A SNAP; RAMS FULFILL PROMISE TO FALLEN STAR

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VCU senior Briante Weber celebrates after the Rams topped Dayton 71-65 for the Atlantic 10 Championship.

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.

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A-10 CHAMPIONSHIP VIDEO ROUND-UP

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RAMS TURN ON A DIME, TOPPLE TOP-SEEDED DAVIDSON

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Mo Alie-Cox (left) provided 18 points and eight rebounds as VCU knocked off regular season champion Davidson 93-73 in the A-10 semifinals.

Mo Alie-Cox (left) provided 18 points and eight rebounds as VCU knocked off regular season champion Davidson 93-73 in the A-10 semifinals.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Momentum is a funny, nebulous concept, but if there was ever proof of how quickly it can shift, it was VCU’s impressive – and for many, unexpected – 93-73 upset of regular season champ Davidson Saturday in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals at Barclays Center.

Left for dead a little over a week ago by some prognosticators, VCU is back to wreaking havoc on brackets. The Rams are storming into the A-10 title game for the third straight year Sunday, where they’ll take on Dayton. The Flyers topped Rhode Island in Saturday’s semifinal nightcap. It will be VCU’s fifth straight appearance in a conference championship game.

Just days ago, VCU’s victory would have been considered as unlikely as a Knicks winning streak. At times, the Rams made it look easy against Davidson, hitting 12 three-pointers on the way to victory.

The Rams didn’t just beat a red-hot Davidson team Saturday, avenging an 82-55 blowout loss on March 5, VCU dominated the Wildcats for long stretches, and displayed championship form. It was Davidson’s first loss in 11 games, and VCU’s best performance since losing point guard Briante Weber to injury on Jan. 31. VCU’s 93 points were the most by a Davidson opponent in three months.

“We played with a lot of enthusiasm today. We wanted to go out there and attack from the get-go. We had our ups and downs and responded pretty well today, and we’re going to have to do that for the rest of the season,” said senior Treveon Graham, who finished with 18 points.

It had been nine days since VCU and Davidson last met, but it might as well have been nine years.

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VIDEO: VCU UPENDS DAVIDSON 93-73

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VIDEO: RAMS SQUASH SPIDERS IN A-10 QUARTERS

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VCU FINDS A LITTLE OF ITS OLD SELF; HAS LAST LAUGH ON RICHMOND

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Melvin Johnson hit five threes and scored 23 points in VCU's 70-67 win over Richmond Friday.

Melvin Johnson hit five threes and scored 23 points in VCU’s 70-67 win over Richmond Friday.

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.

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MAY CARSON DALY DREAM OF THE VCU PEPPAS FOR YEARS TO COME

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Today’s format was a little different than the last two years, but the Peppas and the VCU spirit squads made what has become an annual appearance on the Today Show this morning. VCU superfan Chris Crowley also got plenty of airtime this morning. Have a look:

ALSO…

Rodney vs. Spidurrr

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The Peppas rolling down the street

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