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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RICHMOND POSTGAME

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RECENT TRIALS REVEAL VCU CHARACTER

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Treveon Graham finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds - his 20th career double-double - for VCU Wednesday.

Treveon Graham finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds – his 20th career double-double – for VCU Wednesday.

RICHMOND, Va. – At some point, late in regulation of Wednesday night’s 67-63 double overtime loss to Richmond, as Treveon Graham took the ball for the umpteenth time, his lungs likely burning (and not just from all the floating sweater vest fibers in the air), his legs probably feeling like Jell-O, I wondered when his body would just quit. Shut down. Go on strike. Possession after possession I watched as he slogged through the clogged paint, took abuse and readied for more.

And that was before he willed an improbable VCU comeback into existence by – I don’t even know what to call it anymore – Grahamagic?

What followed was about an hour of the most emotionally draining, mathematically unlikely and just plain crazy basketball I’ve witnessed while on the VCU dime.

Teetering on the edge of full-on collapse early in the second half, VCU rallied from 16 points down to force overtime. With 2:06 left, the Rams were still down eight and shooting a very comeback-unfriendly 30-something-or-other percent. But then a steal and a few free throws, and a three and another steal and an airball and another steal and a couple of missed Richmond free throws and then a 3-pointer so deep Graham wouldn’t try it in H-O-R-S-E and then a ShawnDre’ Jones prayer that agonizingly bounced three times on the rim after the buzzer….and boom. Overtime, just that simple.

Oh, but wait. In overtime, VCU takes an eventual three-point lead with seven seconds left, fouls Richmond with 4.1 on the clock and then watches as Richmond purposely misses the second free throw, gets a perfect deflection off VCU and then runs a great inbounds play to tie the game. Double overtime, just that simple.

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SHAKA SMART MEDIA MINUTES (FEB. 23)

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VCU-Richmond, Round 2 is coming up Wednesday. Shaka Smart met with the esteemed River City media to discuss the rivalry and more.

WEBER’S STATUS VCU’S MAIN CONCERN FOLLOWING RICHMOND LOSS

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Senior Briante Weber leads the nation in steals.

VCU Senior Briante Weber leads the nation in steals.

RICHMOND, Va. – Richmond snapped VCU’s 12-game winning streak Saturday, but the Rams’ greater concern moving forward will be the status of senior point guard Briante Weber, who left the game with a non-contact injury to his right knee.

In his press conference following the 64-55 loss, VCU Coach Shaka Smart said he did not know the severity of the injury, and that an MRI was imminent.

“We’re hopeful it’s something he can come back from, but I don’t want to say more than that because I don’t know.”

With 3:18 remaining, Weber drove and made a jump stop inside the free throw line, then crumbled to the floor in obvious pain. He was escorted off the floor by the VCU athletic training staff. Weber returned to the VCU bench on crutches a short time later.

Richmond players and coaches shook Weber’s hand afterwards and offered words of encouragement.

“I just said [to him] that guys overcome a lot of things, and people wouldn’t have predicted he’d become the great player that he is and NBA prospect that he is, so what’s bad for a regular person might not be as bad for him, and I wished him luck in getting better,” said Richmond Coach Chris Mooney.

Losing Weber for any period of time would be significant for VCU. Weber has often been the Rams’ catalyst on both sides of the floor. He is currently leading the nation in steal percentage for the fourth straight year, and his play sets the tone for the Rams’ “Havoc” defense.

Weber scored 11 points and grabbed six steals prior to Saturday’s injury. He has 374 career steals, 11 shy of the NCAA career record. Weber is averaging 8.0 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 steals per game this season.

Although Weber has been relatively injury-free during his career, the Rams did manage an 85-69 win over Tennessee on Nov. 14 in the season-opener while Weber served a suspension. Sophomore JeQuan Lewis and freshman Johnny Williams will be asked to pick up the bulk of the slack at the point for the Rams.

“We’ll wait and see,” Smart said. “He’s an integral part of what we do. We’re hopeful he’ll be back soon, but if he’s out, we’re going to keep playing. You can’t cancel the season. We’re going to keep playing. That’s why you have a full roster of guys. In terms of style of play, we’re not going to change a whole lot [if Weber’s out], but guys are just going to have to step up and play.”

VCU, which entered the game ranked 14th nationally in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll, is 17-4 overall and remains in first place in the Atlantic 10 at 7-1 despite the loss.

The Rams will travel to George Mason on Wednesday before heading to St. Bonaventure on Feb. 7.

NOE LOBBIED FOR A ‘YES’, HELPED LAUNCH VCU-RICHMOND RIVALRY

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Former Rams’ Chuck Noe helped usher in the Richmond-VCU rivalry.

RICHMOND, Va. – Not many people know it, but the roots of the University of Richmond are tangled with those of VCU.

On the corner of Ryland and Grace Streets, on the eastern fringe of Richmond’s Fan neighborhood and very much within VCU’s footprint, sits a gateway that marks the former location of Richmond College. The college picked up and moved out to the West End in 1914 and became the University of Richmond. Today, you can stand at the gateway and watch fans on the next block trickle into VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.

VCU’s beginnings are also modest, from Richmond Professional Institute – once an arm of William & Mary – to the 1968 merger with the Medical College of Virginia that created the University as it exists today.

The origins of the VCU-Richmond basketball series, a rivalry that has often roused this city for nearly 40 years, are similarly humble. Separated by just eight miles, the two institutions might as well be worlds apart. VCU is a large, public institution located downtown, while Richmond is small, private and tucked away in a leafy neighborhood in the West End. For those and a number of other reasons, the rivalry has maintained its edge despite changes in coaches, administrators and conference affiliation.

Although the RPI-MCV merger produced VCU in 1968, it wasn’t until eight years later that it would meet Richmond on the basketball court. There are a number of possible explanations as to why VCU and Richmond didn’t face each other until 1976. Most agree, however, that Richmond, as an established member of the Southern Conference at the time, chose not to play VCU because it simply didn’t have to.

“We always wanted to play Richmond, but they were an established school. VCU had been an independent up to that point. The schools just never had a chance to play each other. We’d always see the guys in the summer time, and we’d go back and forth,” says Gerald Henderson, a VCU star from 1974-78.

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VIDEO: RAMS EDGE RICHMOND 56-50

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IS ‘STATE CHAMPS’ A REAL THING, AND WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM IT?

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Rob Brandenbeerg (left) scored 11 points as VCU beat Richmond 56-50 Thursday to complete a 6-0 sweep of Virginia schools this season.

Rob Brandenbeerg (left) scored 11 points as VCU beat Richmond 56-50 Thursday to complete a 6-0 sweep of Virginia schools this season.

RICHMOND, Va. –  State Champs.

It’s a bit of a running joke among VCU fans that the Rams were going for a state championship this year, with Virginia, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, George Mason and Richmond –  i.e. the five best Division I programs in Virginia not named VCU – on the schedule. But now, with Thursday’s 56-50 triumph over Richmond, the Rams have actually “swept the state”, finishing 6-0 against those schools (barring any postseason meetings). Perhaps it’s important to recognize that and understand what it means, if anything.

First and foremost, VCU will receive nothing tangible for winning those six games (beating Richmond twice). This isn’t Philadelphia’s Big Five. There’s no trophy, no special recognition, not even a Chuck E Cheese pizza party for winning this thing we made up on the fly. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It matters to the fans, who have stroked the fires of these intrastate rivalries. It also matters because going 6-0 against that group means you probably won some quality games.

It also mattered to Shaka Smart and the players. If you listened to Smart’s press conference Thursday night, you could gauge the importance.

According to VCU Sports Information Director Scott Day, this has never happened before. No school from these six programs (including VCU), has swept the group in the same season. You don’t think that’s a great recruiting tool? “Hey, (insert player name), you know those other Virginia schools that are recruiting you? Yeah, we beat them. All of them.”

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SHAKA SMART MEDIA MINUTES (MARCH 3)

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