The term "rockfight" is my favorite new word from Season 8. When I see it I think of the great East Coast mid-major leagues like the CAA or A10, where all the teams play tough and there are no easy conference games.
In addition to those two, one of my other favorite leagues is the Missouri Valley Conference, where a mid-major is usually the biggest team in town and dedicated fans pack arenas every night to cheer on their teams. Thanks to Kyle's work over the years, I've gotten to know and appreciate conferences I otherwise only would have had a vague idea about every March. So I was very happy to see Wichita State, one of the best teams in the Valley, was coming to Portland. Not only that, but they would face none other than one of the stars of Season 7, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. The team that went from the First Four to the Final Four. The team that I spent the end of Season 7 supporting from my home was coming here. Other fans might have been excited to see Indiana or Louisville, but for me the main event Thursday was clear: Gregg Marshall's Shockers against Shaka Smart's Rams. Two of Our Game's elite, here in my hometown. How lucky was I?
(These two pictures were taken at Wednesday's open practice day)
Had I been scheduling the games, I would have made this one the last of the day. Not only was this the best fight on the card, but that would have ensured everyone was able to get into the arena on time to see it. Because we're three hours behind the East Coast, the second session of NCAA games has to start in the 4 o'clock hour local time to accommodate prime time viewing back east. The Long Beach-New Mexico game ended at about 3:20 p.m., and the VCU-Wichita State game tipped off at 4:15. That meant all of us coming back for Session 2 had to exit as quickly as possible after the end of the game and get back in the long line of fans already waiting outside for the evening games. Outside among the VCU fans lined up, I was glad to see a gentleman in a Rams cape and a familiar set of horns on his head. We'll return to him later. I made it back to my seat with about 20 minutes to spare but I hate being late and in a rush so I was still a little nervous. There were enough open seats around Joel and I that my fellow Pilot fan and 800GP contributor Steven Langston joined us.
As you can see, there were still quite a few empty seats outside the VCU and WSU sections. The Shocker and Ram fans came in very impressive numbers, however. WSU's fans filled one lower-level section and extended into the second level of the arena. Those who were there before the game were also treated to VCU's pep band. I've heard them referred to as the best in the CAA, and their reputation is well-earned. I don't know all the songs they played, a combination of my musical tastes being not the most contemporary, so to speak, and the fact that they were probably using custom arrangements. In any event their sound was big and bold, and they fired up the fans even more than they already were. They also got bonus points for chanting "Wichita's not a state!" during the game.
We've heard plenty about VCU's high pressure defense, and it was on display in the first half. It was quite impressive to watch in person: force an empty possession, then run and score before Wichita State had time to set its defense. They held WSU to 29 percent shooting in the first half, and forced seven turnovers to lead 34-25 at the break. The Shockers, however, were holding the Rams to 39 percent from the field. I wrote "rockfight" next to the halftime stats in my notes. I had a feeling a nine-point deficit was far from insurmountable the way the Shockers were making the Rams work for every basket.
At halftime, I made my way down to the section behind the VCU band. My goal was to say hello to the gentleman in the horns, the one and only Chris "VCUPav" Crowley. Chris, like his team, is full of energy and intensity. His love for VCU is infectious and he must have gotten all the neutral fans in his section to back the Rams. If you spend a couple minutes with him he'll probably convert you too.
The momentum the Rams built to end the first half continued to start the second. From the 3:00 mark of the first to the 14:00 of the second VCU outscored WSU 18-7, running out to a 44-31 lead. If this was a rockfight, it seemed as though Wichita State had run out of stones.
It turned out they were just reloading. In the next 90 seconds, they outscored VCU 9-2, an Ehimen Orukpe superhoop making the score 46-40 at 12:24. Four minutes later, they were down four, then three with a Joe Ragland superhoop with 7:15 to go. The Shockers had made it a game again, as I thought they might. The matchup I had anticipated most was living up to my expectations. In the middle of the WSU comeback, Joel turned to me and said, "I think these last two [NCAA] games have been more exciting than the last two Blazer [home] games I've been to." Same here, my friend.
Fast forward to five minutes to go. With a one-point lead, VCU's defense held not once, not twice, but three times. Three chances for the Shockers to take the lead, three empty possessions. At 2:50, Troy Daniels put the Rams up four with a superhoop. If that was the blow that knocked the Shockers down for the last time, this game would have been entertaining enough. What basketball fan could have asked for more?
But the Shockers got right back up. Ragland hit a three to give him a team-high 15 points on the night. 57-56. No sooner had I written down that basket on my notepad than WSU stole the ball. They got it to Toure Murray behind the arc. Boom. In 50 seconds. the Shockers had completed their comeback. 59-57.
Now it was VCU's turn to respond to a heavy blow. There was really only one weapon they could have chosen. Bradford Burgess, the senior who knew a thing or two about clutch shots. His final points of the night came on a superhoop from the corner at 1:27, giving him 16 on the night and VCU a 60-59 lead. After their defense held, the Rams came down the floor for one last possession. Two points here, and the Shockers would be forced into a last-second three to tie the game. As the shot clock wound down, Darius Theus drove into the lane, pulled up, and banked in a floater. VCU 62, WSU 59, 12 seconds to go, the Rams needing one more stop to pull off the upset, the Shockers needing a superhoop to tie.
It was somehow appropriate that VCU's famous defense had the final say. They denied the Shockers' best shooters a clean look. The last shot of Garrett Stutz's college career was a contested three that was well off the mark. The team that had pulled off so many upsets in last year's dance had also earned the first one of this year's tournament.
As Pav (in the yellow behind the band) and the Ram fans celebrated, all I could do was sit back and smile. I had hoped for a good game between these two and I ended up with the best game I'd seen all year. When I saw the bracket come out I knew there were positives and negatives in this game. One of the mid-majors who had worked so hard to get to the dance was going home on the first day. On the other hand, it guaranteed someone from the Other 24 would still be standing Saturday. It was going to end in a loss for Wichita State, but they fought as hard as they could to put off the inevitable. We don't yet know when the end will come for VCU. Even if they get past Indiana, their game in the round of 32 will almost certainly be the end of my 2011-12 basketball season. For giving me this game right before the end of my Season 8, one I'll look back on fondly for seasons to come, all I can say to the Rams and Shockers is a heartfelt thank you.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 62, WICHITA STATE 59 03/15/2012
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 29-6 (15-3) -- B. Burgess 6-16 2-2 16; D. Theus 5-7 0-0 10; T. Daniels 4-8 0-0 10; R. Brandenberg 3-11 2-4 9; J. Reddic 2-5 0-0 4; D. Haley 1-1 2-3 4; T. Graham 2-6 0-0 4; B. Weber 2-5 0-0 5; D. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-59 6-9 62. WICHITA STATE 27-6 (16-2) -- J. Ragland 6-10 1-2 15; T. Murry 3-10 3-4 10; C. Hall 4-7 2-3 10; B. Smith 3-9 0-0 7; D. Kyles 4-9 0-0 9; G. Stutz 2-11 0-0 4; D. Williams 0-2 0-0 0; T. Cotton 2-3 0-1 4; J. White 0-1 0-0 0; E. Orukpe 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-62 6-10 59.
Three-point goals: VCU 6-23 (B. Burgess 2-7; T. Daniels 2-5; D. Theus 0-1; R. Brandenberg 1-6; B. Weber 1-2; T. Graham 0-2), WICH 5-16 (T. Murry 1-1; D. Kyles 1-4; G. Stutz 0-2; D. Williams 0-1; J. Ragland 2-3; B. Smith 1-4; J. White 0-1); Rebounds: VCU 31 (D. Haley 7), WICH 33 (C. Hall 8); Assists: VCU 9 (B. Burgess 4), WICH 13 (T. Murry 5); Total Fouls -- VCU 12, WICH 12; Fouled Out: VCU-None; WICH-None.