Brandenberg heats up late; seals VCU win over Belmont

Jim Swing
Sports Editor

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Rob Brandenberg had 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals in VCU’s win over Belmont. (Photo by Chris Conway)

Basketball-wise, Shaka Smart has two sets of goals with highly contrasting definitions he uses to describe the mindset of a player.

There are avoidance goals – these are the bad ones, where a player tries not to make a mistake and plays to avoid a loss, rather than gain a win.

Then there are approach goals – these are for the goal-oriented go-getters, who approach the game with an itch to excel. These are the goals junior guard Rob Brandenberg is playing with.

It was never more clear than Saturday night, when Brandenberg shot 5-for-12 with 14 points, manufacturing a late second-half takeover in VCU’s 75-65 win over Belmont.

For the better part of 32 minutes, it looked as if Brandenberg was gearing up to close out another lousy shooting night. Shots weren’t falling; in fact, five of his first seven shots hadn’t fell through the net.

This is where Brandenberg meets the crossroads of Smart’s two divergent goals. He could’ve let his confidence fall by the wayside, quit shooting and let someone else carry the burden. Or he could’ve done what he did Saturday night – become the late-game leader for a team without point guard Darius Theus.

Late in the second half, what had at one time been as much as a 21-point VCU advantage juggled back-and-forth between five and 10 points. The Rams needed a closer, and Brandenberg was right for the job.

With just over six minutes left, Brandenberg started creating his own shots. He nailed a jumper to push a six-point lead to eight. When the lead dwindled down to as low as five points more than two minutes later, Brandenberg hit another jumper to give VCU some wiggle room.

And when the lead began to diminish again, he gave the Rams even more cushion, stepping up and draining a 3-pointer to go up eight.

Brandenberg’s game had gone from ice cold to white hot in a matter of minutes.

“When I’m out there I just play,” he said. “If I score one basket, I try to feed off of that.”

Streaky shooting has defined the three-year career of Brandenberg up to this point. His lows have been devastatingly low, but his highs have found him almost single-handedly winning VCU ballgames.

For example, last season Brandenberg fell in an eight-game shooting slump that lasted from Jan. 2-23 when he missed 37 of his 45 shots (82 percent) over that stretch. Brandenberg was bombarded with questions as to whether he was going through a sophomore slump.

Then he followed that downswing by hitting 27 of his next 62 shots (43.5 percent) over the next eight games.

“One thing I learned last year is you really can’t played basketball with a clouded mind,” Brandenberg said.

A similar – but not as drastic – situation has occurred this season. Brandenberg missed 17 of his first 24 shot attempts in the first three games. Then he lit up Memphis by shooting 5-for-5 from behind the three-point line in VCU’s fourth game.

“I think Rob is much more on the offensive and being more aggressive,” Smart said of Brandenberg’s progression. “We’ve worked a lot on just his mindset and his ability to clear his head in the moment and do what’s next whatever the moment requires.”

Perhaps Brandenberg’s shooting springs from his confidence level, which appears to be at an all-time high. Never more evidenced than Saturday night, with the shot clock winding down, Brandenberg held onto the ball and took it himself into the lane drawing a foul with two and a half minutes remaining.

Since VCU’s first three games, Brandenberg has buried 23 of his last 50 shot attempts (46 percent). Maybe his hot streak will continue, maybe it will die off and spiral into another slump.

But on this night, Brandenberg was scolding hot when it counted most.

“It was definitely a little adrenaline rush,” Brandenberg said. “But at the end of the day I do what I can to help my teammates win and at the time I think that’s what we needed to get the win, so we’ll take it.”

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