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NORFOLK – Hollywood couldn’t even have written a more fitting closing to this ferocious rivalry, or even a more suitable close to what the past month has been like.
The stage was set at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. VCU fans sprinkled into a sea of white looked to bring out the brooms for the first time since 2004. And ODU fans were simply looking for revenge after an absolute all-out assault the Rams dumped on the Monarchs two weeks back.
These two teams know each other well. The small stretch of land on Interstate 64 could consider them neighbors in the Colonial Athletic Association.
It could be argued that their fans are even more familiar. Minutes before the opening tip, VCU band director Ryan Kopacsi rolled by the ODU student section with his group’s new album in hand. “Five dollars,” he yelled as the packed crowd of student screamed and scoffed at him. The two fan bases know each other well, and the teams were their entertainment.
Loud music blaring through the speakers and a sold-out mass of 8,472 stood on their feet at the Convocation Center. The stage was set.
By no means was this game pretty. These types of matchups aren’t for the weak, and certainly aren’t for the faint of heart. When one team punched the other in the mouth, the other would answer with a blow right back.
In a game where VCU and ODU combined for 44 total fouls, getting up close and aggressive became an afterthought to getting down and dirty. A three-point difference at the half, meant only the best was yet to come. The Rams quickly stormed out to a 12-2 run with help from a 0-for-13 shooting drought by the Monarchs to take a seven-point lead.
The two teams went back and forth as the fouls continued to pile up for VCU. Darius Theus, the team’s point guard and leading ball-handler, picked up his fourth foul with just over seven and a half minutes to go. Juvonte Reddic, Treveon Graham and D.J Haley each picked up their fourth personals as the half trudged on. For Theus, a native of Portsmouth, being relegated to the bench in the crucial moments of the second half was torture.
“It was hurting me so bad,” Theus said. “Being a point guard you always want to go out there and help your team.
“Me and coach were going back and forth: ‘Coach, let me get in. I’m ready.’ ‘No, I don’t want you to foul.’”
The one lone constant – and one of few players free of foul trouble – in the Rams’ lineup was lone senior Bradford Burgess, who was coming off of his best shooting night in months against Towson three days earlier. In what could potentially be his final game against ODU, Burgess took lead on the court. His 24 points on 50 percent shooting were just numbers on paper compared to his late game heroics.
With just under a minute remaining and VCU down by three, Burgess drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game at 61.
“Bradford, he just led the way the whole game,” Theus said. “He was the best player on the court the whole 40 minutes.”
After recovering from a measly shooting slump that saw Burgess miss 53-of-76 shots, the Midlothian native has hit 14 of his last 27 shots dating two games back.
“He was phenomenal. The last two games he’s had great bounce,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said.
“We would fall apart if he wasn’t in the game, not just because he’s our best scorer, but because he holds everything together from a communication standpoint and especially on the defensive end,” he added.
As time dwindled with less than a precious minute remaining, Theus made arguably one of the biggest plays of his career, right in his own backyard. Theus took a steal from Reddic the distance and floated the ball off the backboard while getting drubbed by ODU’s Donte Hill for the and-one and a three-point lead with 30 seconds to go.
Theus’ father Ralph, donning a VCU jersey and a top hat behind the Rams’ bench, turned around to the Monarchs crowd and flashed his classic “No. 10 is my son” sign.
Seconds later, Theus grabbed a long rebound and was fouled by Kent Bazemore before hitting two clutch free throws to put VCU up by five.
But until the final buzzer sounded, the energy never left the Convocation Center, and neither did the effort. Trian Iliadis canned a desperation 3-pointer with 6.1 seconds remaining to make it a three-point game. Briante Weber, a native of Chesapeake just minutes outside of Norfolk, stepped to the line with the chance to put his signature on the final paragraph of the rivalries newest edition.
ODU head coach Blaine Taylor pulled basketball’s equivalent of icing the kicker by pausing the game just as Weber was about to grab the ball.
“I told him in the huddle, what a great opportunity. It’s a big game, rivalry game,” Burgess said. “Your home town, what better way to put us up and eventually lead us to the victory.”
Weber slogged back to the line, confidence in stow. Buried the first shot with arm still hanging in the air. VCU by three. Second shot: good. The heart, soul and life completely drained out of the Convocation Center.
Rams 68, Monarchs 64.
It was 11 straight for VCU, and perhaps none were as fulfilling. Several clutch shots hit and plays made by a variety of different players gave the Rams their first sweep of the Monarchs in eight years. Burgess’ 3-pointer, Reddic’s steal, Theus’ and-one and Weber’s decisive free throws.
They all placed a fitting end to a fierce rivalry.