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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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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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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FORDHAM POSTGAME

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JUSTIN TILLMAN BLOCKED SHOT

RAMS LOOK TO THE PAST TO MOVE AHEAD

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VCU forced 24 turnovers in a 71-60 win over George Mason Saturday.

VCU forced 24 turnovers in a 71-60 win over George Mason Saturday.

RICHMOND, Va. – When you begin to pick up the pieces, you’ve got to start somewhere. For VCU, which suffered a humbling loss at Davidson on Thursday, that place was two years ago. To move forward, the Rams had to look back momentarily.

On Saturday, it helped produce an imperfect 71-60 win over George Mason in VCU’s regular season finale at the Verizon Wireless Arena. It was a start.

Working with a short turnaround following Thursday night’s 82-55 loss at Davidson, VCU Coach Shaka Smart showed his team clips from an 86-68 win over UMass on Feb. 14, 2012.

Those clips were not selected at random. That game featured a UMass squad in the midst of its best season in years. They were confident and fun. At the time, it was an A-10 must-watch game. VCU tightened its grip that night and forced 24 turnovers in a fan friendly, wide-open, 79-possession gem.

“Coach just reminded us of how VCU plays, the VCU way, and he showed us a clip of two years ago in the A-10 against UMass, the style of play and how the game was going,” said sophomore Mo Alie-Cox, who finished with 11 points. “So that really put a reminder in our heads about how we should play and an attacking mindset, and that’s what we really tried to do here today. “

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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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