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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ATLANTIC 10 TOURNAMENT BRACKET

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RAMS STAND TALL ON A-10 SUCCESS, NCAA FUTURE

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Shaka Smart said Sunday he's proud of VCU's performance in the A-10 this season.

Shaka Smart said Sunday he’s proud of VCU’s performance in the A-10 this season.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – As Shaka Smart spoke, his voice betrayed him. After three emotional Atlantic 10 Tournament games, it cracked and wheezed. Much like his team, Smart left everything, including his voice, on the Barclays Center floor.

The Rams stellar inaugural A-10 season came to a close Sunday in an emotional 62-56 loss to Saint Louis in the league’s championship game. VCU, which had been overrun by a poised Billikens team in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, battled until the final horn. The Rams refused to let Saint Louis walk to a title with a repeat performance.

But an A-10 title was not in the cards for the Rams this year. That honor goes to a tough Saint Louis team that overcame the death of its coach, Rick Majerus, earlier this year and banded together. The Billikens came into the game ranked 16th nationally, and they’re at least that good, if not better. The Rams can keep the chins high.

“We came at them, they took a punch from us. They responded, and that’s why they’re the champions,” said Smart afterwards.

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A-10 CHAMPIONSHIP PHOTOESSAY

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YOUR DAILY SPIKE LEE UPDATE

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Yup. He’s ready.

TROY DANIELS FORTIFIES LEGACY, SENDS RAMS TO A-10 TITLE GAME

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Senior Troy Daniels knocked down 6-of-9 threes Saturday and finished with 20 points.

Senior Troy Daniels knocked down 6-of-9 threes Saturday and finished with 20 points.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Shaka Smart tried to warn us. Troy Daniels is a stone-cold gunner from beyond the 3-point arc.

Those aren’t Smart’s actual words. He said something more like, “Troy Daniels is the best shooter I’ve ever coached,” many, many times during the senior’s career. But I like my version better. Because on Saturday, Daniels answered the call for the Rams in one of, if not the biggest spots in his career, so I used more interesting adjectives.

Behind the Roanoke senior’s 20 points – most importantly his 6-of-9 three-point shooting – VCU withstood UMass and secured a 71-62 win in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals Saturday night at Barclays Center.

The victory sends VCU, playing in its inaugural season in the A-10, to a Championship Game match-up with 16th-ranked Saint Louis on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Daniels’ lights-out shooting was the kind of performance that showed everybody why Smart was comfortable placing such a strong label on his senior during his career.

“He’s just a great shooter,” Smart said of Daniels, who has hit 240 career 3-pointers. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever coached. He’s always been terrific in practice, but his first couple of years he had a hard time playing with the confidence to go out and shoot the ball in. Today he did, and all year he has and that’s why he’s one of the top single-season 3-point shooter in Atlantic 10 history.

“We need him to make threes because that’s a big part of what we do. I think it fits in well with our style of play and our guys do a nice job of finding him.”

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VCU-UMASS HALFTIME UPDATE

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HALFTIME SCORE: VCU 35, UMass 34

Spike Lee returned to courtside for Saturday’s game. He ditched his lime green sweatshirt and wore a gold VCU Rams t-shirt.

Rafael Putney two big blocked shots, one that leads to a three in transition to make it 16-8 UMass.

Cady Lalanne opened the game 4-of-4 from the field for the Minutemen as UMass took a 20-11 lead in the first 10 minutes. However, Lalanne picked up his second foul with 6:21 left in the half.

However, VCU staged a furious comeback behind its defense and long-range shooting. After scoring 15 points in the first 15 minutes, the Rams staged an 11-0 run over the next three minutes. Troy Daniels his three straight 3-pointers to start the run and Briante Weber punctuated the blitz with a steal and tomahawk dunk.

Daniels hit 4-of-5 from deep and scored 12 points to lead the Rams in the first. Weber knocked down 4-of-6 shots and had eight points. Much like Friday, Darius Theus started slow, then scored 10 points as the half drew on.

Lalanne led UMass with 10 points in the first. UMass turned the ball over nine times in the first half, VCU just four.

VCU shot .371 (13-of-35) in the first, including 5-of-11 from three. UMass shot .462 (12-of-26).

THIS IS JUST THE BEST THING EVER

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VCU-UMASS PREGAME NOTES

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Brooklyn native Chaz Williams is averaging 22.0 points and 6.5 assists in two A-10 Tournament games.

Brooklyn native Chaz Williams is averaging 22.0 points and 6.5 assists in two A-10 Tournament games.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Nearly a month ago today, to the day, VCU and UMass played a basketball game that nearly set the Siegel Center floor on fire.

The game, won by VCU 86-68 (box score), matched the two highest scoring teams in the Atlantic 10 and practically begged them to play at terminal velocity. They were all but too happy to comply. For a half, UMass matched VCU’s energy and stood tall against the Rams’ Havoc defense.

Then VCU blew UMass’ doors off.

The Minutemen led 42-37 at halftime, but within minutes of the second period, the outcome was clear. VCU scored the first eight points of the second half and eventually ripped off a 21-1 blitz behind a swarming full court press. By the 13:49 mark, the Rams had taken a five-point deficit and turned it into a 58-43 lead. Game over.

Saturday, they’ll meet again in the Atlantic 10 semifinals at Barclays Center. The sixth-seeded Minutemen topped George Washington Thursday before upsetting third-seeded Temple Friday night 79-74 to reach the league’s final four.

UMass (21-10) will be playing its third game in three days. Minutemen star and Brooklyn native Chaz Williams has played 38 and 40 minutes the last two games. Meanwhile, the Rams are coming off an 82-79 win over Saint Joseph’s in which no player exceeded 29 minutes. Given the pace at which both teams play, it’ll be interesting to see if UMass will have the legs for another track meet.

Williams, generously listed at 5-foot-9, has been simply brilliant in the tournament so far. He’s averaging 22.0 points and 6.5 assists in two games at Barclays. But on Feb. 14 in Richmond, the Rams forced Williams into a 1-of-7 shooting night and held him to six points. He also turned the ball over six times. In all, VCU forced 24 turnovers that night and scored 28 points of those errors.

The Rams will push the pace once again Saturday, and there’s no reason to think the Minutemen won’t want to do the same. A tiger isn’t going to change its stripes this late in the season. Williams wore down in the last meeting under VCU’s constant pressure and had difficulty with the Rams’ long, athletic guards.

Treveon Graham led the Rams on Feb. 14 with 19 points, while Melvin Johnson added 18.

OF NOTE

  • UMass 6-8 senior forward Terrell Vinson is averaging 14.5 points in two tournament games.
  • The Minutemen are long at every position, other than point guard, where the diminutive Williams is entrenched. That length did give VCU trouble in the first game, as UMass blocked 10 shots, including five by 6-10 center Cady Lalanne and four by 6-9 Raphiael Putney.
  • UMass turned the ball over 19 times Friday night against Temple.
  • The Minutemen average 13.8 turnovers per game, which ranks 11th in the A-10. UMass is 166th nationally in offensive turnover percentage.
  • UMass ranks 19th in the country in adjusted tempo. VCU is 64th. Buckle your seat belt.

QUOTABLE
“I heard the fans. I think it’s going to be a battle, who can have the most fans here tomorrow.” – UMass Coach Derek Kellogg.

VIDEO: VCU BEATS SAINT JOSEPH’S

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