VCU Men’s Basketball reeled off a pair of pivotal conference wins last week in the most dramatic fashion possible. The Rams defeated crosstown rival the University of Richmond at the Siegel Center Wednesday night by a final of 81-74 before heading up to the frigid Allegheny foothills of New York, where they downed St. Bonaventure University 83-77 in overtime, with a little assist from the Bonnie’s student body.
The 77th edition of the Capitol Classic lived up to the hype once again, as the Black and Gold came out of a knock-down-drag-out war with the Spiders bruised, battered and victorious by a final tally of 81-74. The back and forth affair featured 10 ties and 10 lead changes.
Junior forward Justin Tillman was once again a catalyst for the Rams. He finished with a team-high 18 points and 9 rebounds — his third consecutive outing with 9 boards and double-figure scoring.
“It means a lot to us (what Justin’s been doing),” said redshirt-senior forward Mo Alie-Cox. “When he plays at that level it takes our team to another level. It opens things up for me and (Ahmed) Hamdy, and when they can’t help off him as much it opens up the lane for the guards to drive. What he’s doing is amazing, he’s playing like an all-conference player.”
Tillman was not the only VCU big-man who dominated the paint on this night.
Alie-Cox bounced back from a slew of sub-par performances by his standards to chip in 13 points and 4 rebounds. Fellow senior-forward Ahmed Hamdy contributed 9 points and 4 boards in just 15 minutes of action. The Rams outscored UofR 44-40 in the paint.
“All three of our big guys played really well,” said coach Will Wade. “It was nice to see Mo bounce back after a few tough games for him. Hamdy did a great job, Tillman played with high energy which I don’t want to overlook, even though it’s become standard for him.”
“There are very few teams which play three (guards) around two (forwards),” said Richmond coach Chris Mooney. “They are very committed to that. It’s a huge strength of theirs.”
In addition to the dominance down low, the Black and Gold were able to speed up their opposition with constant full court, man-to-man pressure.
The Spiders turned the ball over 11 times, and the Rams converted the subsequent transition opportunities into 17 points. Senior starting guard Doug Brooks procured four steals, leading all players in the category, and ranks seventh nationally in steal percentage (5.3).
“Their best offensive weapon is in transition,” Mooney said. “They were able to use that to capitalize on our live-ball turnovers.”
Multiple players said after the game Wade had a surprise motivational tool for them in the locker room prior to tip-off, designed to make sure they knew the ramifications of the annual inter-city tussle for supremacy.
“Coach showed us a video before the game of our fans, and it showed us the pride they have for our school and our city,” Alie-Cox said. “We knew this game wasn’t just for us, we were playing for our fan base, our faculty and everybody who’s associated with VCU. We wanted to send them home happy…y’all heard the ‘we are Richmond chants,’ so I think we did that.”
“Anything that’s important to our fans and university is very important to me,” Wade said. “I know how much this game means to them, so I wanted our guys to hear it from them.”
The Spider’s dynamic duo of senior guard Shawndre’ Jones and senior forward T.J. Cline did not go down without a fight. Jones led all scorers with 30 points, and Cline posted his usual well-rounded stat line — 15 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals.
After a three-game homestand which featured consecutive wins over conference opponents who held at least a share of first-place at the time (La Salle University, the University of Dayton and UofR), the Rams hit the road all alone atop the Atlantic Ten standings.
“We’re still trying to play with a first place effort,” Alie-Cox said. “Coach Wade preached that all week. We gotta take the show on the road and not compound mistakes.”
“Saturday will be a tough test,” Wade said. “We’ve got some serious work to do on the road here down the stretch. We’ve got five of our last nine on the road so we’ve gotta make some hay there.”
The Bonnies of St. Bonaventure University gave the Rams everything they could handle and then some in a climactic Saturday afternoon affair that resulted in — after the dust had settled — an 83-77 overtime win for the Black and Gold.
Alie-Cox and Tillman once again led the way for VCU, with 20 and 18 points, respectively. Tillman finally got over his double-double hump by posting 12 boards. Alie-Cox shot an incredibly efficient 8 of 11 from the floor. Senior guard JeQuan Lewis broke out of his own slump to put up 16. Junior guard Matt Mobley, who was nothing short of sensational, was the silver lining for Bonaventure as he poured in a game-high 34 on 10-19 shooting.
But nothing any player, or coach did, really mattered after this one was all said and done.
All that mattered were the last 3.2 seconds of regulation.
With VCU leading 65-63 and 3.2 seconds remaining in the game, the Bonnies had one last chance on an inbounds play under their own basket.
Everybody in the gym and watching at home knew the ball was going to Mobley. The star guard and preseason all-A10 selection ran a curl off a screen in the post, creating just enough space for him to catch the ball in the far corner and take a step behind the three-point line before rising up over the outstretched hands of Lewis and VCU junior guard Jonathan Williams.
Mobley hit, and chaos ensued.
Unbeknownst to the St. Bonaventure players or student body, half a second remained on the game clock.
The student section stormed the court and began to celebrate with Mobley and the rest of their players.
According to Wade, a security guard grabbed the ball before a VCU player wrenched it out of his hands and inbounded. The crowd at mid-court continued to swell.
VCU players and coaches ran to the nearest official asking for an explanation. CBS commentators yelled frantically, “this game is not over!”
The crowd continued to grow. The officials went to the video monitor as ushers and Bonaventure coaches tried desperately to restore order.
Eventually the students filed back into their seats, but the damage had been done. The crowd had stormed the floor with time on the clock and a live ball in bounds.
St. Bonaventure was assessed an administrative technical foul. Lewis stepped up and sunk the free throw, sending the game into overtime.
The self-inflicted calamity took all the air out of the Bonaventure players, coaches and fans. VCU dominated the overtime period and came out on top by a final of 83-77.
Men’s Basketball now finds itself at a checkpoint of sorts after moving to 18-5 overall and 8-2 in Atlantic 10 play. The pair of heart-stopping conference victories over top-tier opponents leaves the Rams firmly atop the A10 and climbing NCAA tournament brackets around the country.
Joe Lunardi of ESPN listed VCU as a 9 seed in his latest bracket, released Feb. 2. The Rams also received a handful of AP top-25 votes in the Jan. 30 poll, and are sure to receive more on Feb. 6.
The sky’s the limit for the Black and Gold as they head down the stretch run with every opportunity to continue their ascension — of their eight remaining games, four (vs Davidson University, at the University of Rhode Island, at Dayton and at U of R) can significantly boost their resume.