BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It was a tough end to the weekend in Brooklyn for VCU. Upon arriving Wednesday evening, it seemed as though HAVOC was in the air already in New York.
When it all came down to it, the Rams had to beat Saint Louis on Sunday in order to claim their first Atlantic 10 tournament title and secure the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Alas, the Billikens proved too much for the Rams to handle again as they fell 62-56.
“They were the best team in the league in the regular season and they were the best team in the league in the tournament,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “(We) almost overcame a terrible shooting day, but didn’t quite overcome it.”
The game started out how VCU had hoped. Forcing a Rob Loe turnover on Saint Louis’ first possession, the Rams converted it into a Treveon Graham jumper to get on the board first. Over the next six and a half minutes, however, Saint Louis got hot, going on an 11-0 run.
Darius Theus ended the drought with a pair of free throws, which actually sparked a 10-2 VCU run to tie the game at 12 with just under ten minutes to go in the half. The scoring would go back and forth for the rest of the half until Saint Louis capitalized on a few missed VCU baskets.
The Billikens went into the half up 29-21. Graham, after his poor performance the previous game, led the team with eight points, while Juvonte Reddic had five. Kwamain Mitchell led all scorers with 12 points.
VCU shot just 8-27 from the field in the first half, and a whopping 0-5 from deep. Saint Louis shot 45 percent from the field, but only 60 percent from the charity line, a major factor in the game not getting out of hand early.
The Rams’ goal in the second half would be to chip away at Saint Louis’ lead however they could. At one point, the Billikens were up 45-32 with 11:45 left in the second half.
Cue a textbook Rams run.
Starting off with a big Graham 3-pointer, HAVOC began to take over the Barclays Center. In the span of three minutes, the Rams reduced the deficit to just one point. The run was capped off by a Reddic steal at center court, which he turned into a monster dunk that made the crowd erupt.
“For a stretch there, we had (the game) going the way we wanted, they were even having trouble getting the ball inbounds, but they’ve got some older guys that stepped up and made some big shots,” Smart said. “They responded and that’s why they’re the champions. I think the bigger key for us is that we can’t dig ourselves into a 13 point hole against a team that good.”
This was the closest the Rams would get to the Billikens, though. Saint Louis held on over the final five minutes of the game to secure their first A-10 tournament title.
Mitchell and A-10 tournament MVP Dwayne Evans led the way, combining for 35 of their 62 points. Evans was a dominant figure in the championship game as well as his two previous games. Graham was matched up against him for most of the day and he had his hands full the whole time.
“(He’s) real physical. When he posts up, it’s hard to get around him, so you’ve got to fight hard to get in front and do your work early. Then when he gets it, try to square up as much as you can,” Graham said.
The Rams were led by Graham who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Reddic ended his night with 15 points and eight rebounds.
What really hurt VCU was the same thing that always plays a factor in close games and losses – foul trouble. Troy Daniels picked up his fourth foul just under two minutes into the second half, which saw him sit for over 12 minutes.
Rob Brandenberg fouled out late in the game, while Daniels and Theus ended the game with four fouls. Reddic, Graham and Weber each had three fouls as well.
Smart praised his players’ performance in the loss, and simply said “somebody had to lose today.”
“Saint Louis didn’t want to lose, our guys didn’t want to lose,” Smart said. “We’re going to the NCAA tournament next week and if we’re not motivated for that, then we shouldn’t be playing.”