That was the simple proclamation Akron coach Keith Dambrot made on my star Christmas present this year, a team-autographed basketball. And go the Zips have of late, winning four blowout home games between December 15th and December 21st to claw back to 7-5 after a first eight games that could best be described as uneven and shorthanded.
This tilt, however, was something altogether different. This was the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, craftsmen of their own six-game winning streak. VCU formerly toiled alongside Akron in mid-obscurity, but on the heels of their Final Four last year, are now the type of opponent who draws a near-capacity crowd at never-really-full Rhodes Arena. They're royalty, and for mid-major fans who pay attention to this stuff, they might as well be UConn. Several times during the game, I had to remind myself that this recap wouldn't get a little red box next to it in the event of a Zips victory.
Shaka Smart, as everyone knows following his ascendancy to stardom last season, leads VCU, making him the man on the other side of the scorer's table from Dambrot. He coached with Dambrot at UA from 2003-2006 and the two remain close friends, even to the point where the Zips boss has repeatedly said how much he hates playing against his former employee.
Perhaps because they were a central storyline, perhaps because of their compelling personalities, one couldn't help but observe the two coaches throughout. Dambrot is always upset about something, often reducing his already short stature into a hands-on-knees squat with an expression that might make the floor melt. Smart tends to stay upright and is more a clapper who yells encouragement through cupped hands. It was the former who was probably most distraught over the contest's early going.
Sometimes when watching a game, something happens early on that gives an indication as to how the game will go. Sometimes, as in this case, that something is the opening tip. Akron's Zeke Marshall, a seven-foot game-changer, doesn't lose too many of those against other mid-major centers. But he lost this one to VCU's D.J. Haley, who is of similar height and a little beefier. Sure, a game never swings on the tip (I mean, the other team gets the ball in the second half), but it did foreshadow later struggles with VCU's athleticism. Nothing came easy for Akron, which was initially unprepared for the Rams' swarming defense and thirst for loose balls. When two of UA's first three possessions ended in Briante Weber steals, a premonition of the worst -- the Zips getting run off of their home floor -- crossed my mind.
The superhoop is a dangerous drug that causes delusions of being more competitive than is actually the case, and your supply can run out unexpectedly and at any time. Xavier transfer Brian Walsh kept Akron in the game with a pair early, although it didn't stop me from workshopping a recap altogether different from this one in my head.
Then a funny and unexpected thing happened: Perhaps aided by a pep talk from new football coach Terry Bowden during a timeout that got the masses worked into the appropriate lather, Akron kept hitting shots, ones worth both three and two points -- even big Serbian senior Nik Cvetinovic got in the behind-the-arc club to stem a VCU run at one point. The passing was more crisp. The turnovers still kept coming, but at least slowed to something less than the early two-of-three rate. The Zips' lead gradually ballooned to 12 on a Quincy Diggs layup with 12 minutes remaining, and the dreaded "hey, we might win this thing" thought crossed my mind.
Predictably after that faux pas, and true to the Rams' character, the visitors charged back. Following the under-12 media timeout, Sweet 16 round hero Bradford Burgess scored nine points the rest of the way. Four of those points came on free throws against the backdrop of a crowd growing salty over a perceived officiating disparity as VCU finally caught up with 3:40 to go, setting up a high-wire finish.
Treveon Graham also cashed on freebies, including two with 32 seconds remaining to knot the game. Cvetinovic got the last look, but his second attempt after having his first momentarily knocked loose came up short.
Overtime is a strange contraption. Following the tight windows and frequent stoppages, five minutes can seem like an eternity -- until you look up at the scoreboard and see that somehow, there's only 19 seconds left. Marshall and Haley made a bookend acquaintance when an entry lob ended with Marshall on the line giving the Zips a one-point lead. It turned out to be one point too few when Burgess found Darius Theus springing loose down low with two seconds remaining.
Officially, Smart and VCU won the game. Unofficially, Dambrot and Akron won a free lesson in what it takes to be VCU.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 76, at AKRON 75 12/29/2011
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 10-3 (1-0) -- B. Burgess 4-13 10-10 19; D. Theus 5-14 0-0 10; B. Weber 4-8 2-2 11; D. Haley 2-2 3-6 7; J. Reddic 3-8 1-2 7; R. Brandenberg 4-6 1-2 11; T. Graham 2-5 4-9 9; T. Daniels 0-4 0-0 0; T. Okereafor 1-3 0-0 2; D. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-63 21-31 76. AKRON 7-6 (0-0) -- Z. Marshall 2-6 6-7 10; A. Abreu 4-12 0-2 11; N. Cvetinovic 8-12 4-6 21; B. Walsh 3-5 2-2 11; Q. Diggs 3-6 0-1 7; B. McClanahan 2-5 1-1 6; D. Treadwell 1-3 0-0 2; C. Gilliam 1-2 0-0 3; N. Harney 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 26-56 13-19 75.
Three-point goals: VCU 5-19 (B. Burgess 1-5; T. Daniels 0-4; D. Theus 0-2; J. Reddic 0-1; R. Brandenberg 2-2; B. Weber 1-2; T. Okereafor 0-1; T. Graham 1-2), AKR 10-20 (C. Gilliam 1-2; B. Walsh 3-4; B. McClanahan 1-3; N. Cvetinovic 1-2; Q. Diggs 1-1; A. Abreu 3-7; N. Harney 0-1); Rebounds: VCU 28 (B. Burgess 7), AKR 32 (N. Cvetinovic 7); Assists: VCU 13 (D. Theus 5), AKR 15 (A. Abreu 4); Total Fouls -- VCU 21, AKR 20; Fouled Out: VCU-J. Reddic; AKR-None.