Michael Doles was surprised earlier Saturday afternoon when he got the call on his cell phone from assistant coach Gerald White explaining the implications of that night’s game against UNC Wilmington.
Until then, it hadn’t hit the senior swingman that a win in his final game at the Stuart C. Siegel Center would lock the Rams into the second seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, giving them a pass in the first round. A loss would drop them down to as far as the fourth seed, putting them in the thick of the tournament with George Mason, Hofstra, Drexel and Delaware.
The impact had to hit Doles and the Rams about midway through the second half. The Seahawks defense had the Rams struggling to get open – much less baskets – and just minutes after converting a four-point play, UNC Wilmington forward Halston Lane gave the Seahawks a virtual five-point sequence by hitting a three from in front of his own bench as Rams center Sam Faulk was called for a foul in the post.
The Seahawks got the ball back under their basket, and Lane made quick lay-up, putting the Rams in a 14-point hole that would eventually go as deep as 19 points.
With a little over two minutes left, the Seahawks were up by 13, and many of the 7,283 fans were making their way for the exits.
“I just didn’t want to go out like that,” said Doles, who along with former high school teammate Derrick Reid was playing in his final home game. “It would be the worst thing ever to go out losing on senior night.”
Minutes away from that scenario playing out, the Rams resorted to what Jeff Capel called “desperate defense.”
They pressed, forcing UNCW’s otherwise unflappable point guard John Goldsberry to make bad decisions late.
They gambled, sending long-bodied Renardo Dixon out to blanket the UNCW inbounds pass with seconds remaining in regulation.
They were aggressive, asking Jesse Pellot-Rosa to switch with B.A. Walker and put the clamps on Goldsberry down the stretch.
They forced turnovers, like the one the Seahawks committed in the corner of their own backcourt, which gave the Rams the ball and Doles a chance to go off.
Doles took the inbound, drove middle, spun and popped a jumper from inside the free-throw line, cutting the lead to three points. Then, with :23 on the clock, Doles recovered a loose ball near the Rams logo at half court, dribbled behind his back and pulled a three as UNC defenders scrambled around him.
Once it dropped, Doles had his 11th point in a four-minute span, and the Rams had capped a 27-8 run in the game’s final six minutes to force overtime, making an afterthought of the game-winning free-throw Michael Doles’ hit with five seconds left in OT.
“All I know is we just kept believing. That’s all,” said Doles, who finished his VCU career with a 23-point performance. “We just kept believing.”
The Rams’ 72-71 overtime win gave them an identical 13-5 CAA record to the Seahawks. Because VCU had split its season series with first-place Old Dominion while UNCW was swept by the Monarchs, VCU would earn the No. 2 spot in the CAA tournament and the first-round bye that comes with it.
“It was a little bit surreal,” head coach Jeff Capel said, “I kind of want to get out of here before I wake up and something changes, because I still can’t believe what happened and what we just saw.”
The Rams won’t play until Saturday at 6 p.m. when they face the winner of the first-round matchup between No. 7 Delaware and No. 10 Towson. Capel said that his team will take any advantage it can get in a one-and-done tournament. By beating the Seahawks, the Rams gain an edge by playing a team that will be playing on just 24-hours rest.
Capel said the game was “eerily similar” to the VCU’s 68-63 loss to UNCW earlier this season when the Rams let a double-digit lead slip away. This time, though, it was the Rams who struggled early, shooting 29 percent from the field and 15.4 percent from 3-point range in the first half, then caught hot late.
UNC Wilmington head coach Brad Brownell said the same thing.
“If you watched our team all year, we’ve done this to about four teams,” said Brownell, who is in his third year with UNCW. “This time we just had it done to us.”
Doles said the sense of urgency that sparked the comeback started with Pellot-Rosa. The sophomore guard scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds, but his play on defense, Doles said, pushed the Rams.
“Jesse locked up every time in the last four minutes of the game, and that got me going, and I know that got everybody else going,” Doles said. “So we just knew that in the last four minutes of the game that it was crunch time and we had to get the stop.”
Pellot-Rosa, who also had a pair of steals, never lacked confidence.
“I knew I could check him (Goldsberry) throughout the whole game,” Pellot-Rosa said. “I just wasn’t on him.”
Walker, who scored 14 points including a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 66-59 with 1:13 on the clock, had four fouls when he asked to switch off.
After hitting a pair of free throws with 2:08 on the clock to give him 15 points, Goldsberry never found the basket again, going without a shot for the rest of regulation and overtime with Pellot-Rosa shadowing him around the court.
The Rams have a couple of off days to look forward to after ending the season with such a grueling game. In that time, Capel said he and his coaching staff will work on fixing the things they can control, particularly the way their team shoots the ball and the way they play defense.
“Hopefully,” Capel said, “we won’t be in a position where we have to play desperate defense.”