As I took my seat for the round of 32 game between VCU and Indiana I knew the two games in tonight's session were the last basketball games I would see until the fall. The second game was between two above-the-Line teams so this first matchup would be the last I'd write about for the 800 Games Project. I just didn't have time to think about that much because I was so focused on the game in front of me. The Rams had a chance to extend Season 8 to next week (using TMM's original definition of last mid-major standing) but would have to beat Indiana to do it. With Hoops Nation behind them I believed they would. I was glad I'd be able to take in this game with Steven thanks to another night with lots of empty seats.
As we know by now VCU's success is built on their defense, nicknamed Havoc, and what an appropriate title it is. Everywhere IU looked they found an intimidating maze of Rams reaching out for deflections, hands ready to snatch passes out of the air, and post players ready to swat away close range shots. It's a defense that's actually fascinating to watch, as odd as that sounds. Consider the following sequence with IU leading 13-5 after three minutes: DJ Haley with an #omgblox (if that's not an official stat it should be), leading to a Troy Daniels superhoop. A few trips later Daniels stole the ball and went coast to coast to tie the game. Less than a minute later, a Bradford Burgess superhoop followed by Briante Weber stealing the Hoosier inbound pass and laying it in and it was 18-13. A ten-point swing in 90 seconds. Havoc.
Then came the under-12 media timeout. It was VCU's turn to play. The first sounds came from the tuba section made famous by Kenny Ocker's recap. Then the trombones picked up the riff. The VCU section roared its approval and joined in: "You don't wanna go to war...with the Raaaaaaams! Don't start no stuff won't be no stuff!" The director, who started the game in a jacket and tie, could hold back no longer. Off came the coat, tie, and dress shirt, revealing a Superman t-shirt underneath. If there were any neutral fans in the arena not swayed by VCU's play on the court, they were converted by the band. At the end of the timeout they received the biggest ovation of any band the entire weekend.
The Rams maintained their energy level the rest of the half, and even when the nine-point lead they built shrank to one at halftime thanks to eight straight Christian Watford points, I still felt good. True, IU shot 67%, but they didn't get many opportunities to shoot what with the 10 turnovers they committed. Another trip to the Sweet Sixteen was 20 minutes away.
This guy certainly was happy.
The second half seemed to favor the Rams too. The long scoreless stretches were fine, or so I thought. A 9-1 run to give VCU a 57-49 lead with 11:40 to play seemed like too much for Indiana to come back from. Just one more basket, I thought, and that would be too much the way the Rams were defending. When the Rams played the best arrangement of the National Anthem in Hoops Nation it sounded like the prelude to a run that would close out the game. Their National Anthem is unlike any I've heard. The first time through it's standard stuff, with "V-C-U" in the chorus, as some schools do. But then it goes into a syncopated rock beat the second time through, followed by the band singing the third verse.
Even as Indiana slowly cut into the lead I felt all right. Just one more basket, followed by one more stop, right? When Darius Theus scored the first Ram points in nearly three minutes to make it 61-56 with 2:20 left I could feel it. I turned to Steven. "One more. One more stop and they're good."
Indiana had three more trips down the floor. They scored on their first two, with two missed free throws by Bradford Burgess sandwiched between them, to tie the game at 61. The Hoosiers outscored the Rams 14-4 since the 11:40 mark. VCU scored two points in the last five minutes. They scored no points at all in the final 2:20. But even after a missed superhoop attempt to take the lead, they just needed one more stop. They had to create Havoc just one more time and they might get a final shot, or go to overtime in the worst case.
There have been studies done of Gordon Hayward's wrist when he released the shot that nearly won Butler a national title, how it came down to fractions of an inch. I doubt we'll ever know how much farther to the right or left the VCU defender needed to move his arm so that the Indiana shot he blocked bounced to a Ram teammate, or rolled out of WIll Sheehey's reach. The Rams needed just one more defensive stand and if Sheehey wasn't standing in the right place at the right time, and released his shot at just the right angle with just the right force, VCU would have done what they needed to do.
In a way this result doesn't matter. The only questions about the end of the season are when and where it will come. I knew my season was ending tonight no matter the outcome. But in VCU I saw a team that deserved to play one more game. I saw fans who deserved to have one more chance to watch the guys they loved. I saw a band that should have played at least one more night and converted one more arena of fans.
As I've grown accustomed to, though, what I want is not always the same as what happens when it comes to sports, or life in general. Getting something different than what you want is not always a bad thing however. When I started this season I just wanted to write about the Pilots, not really knowing what would happen. What I got was more than that. I got to see all four Division I teams and arenas in Oregon. I met people from thousands of miles away who I only knew for their love of mid-major basketball. I got a place where I could talk about the Pilots in depth, in a way I couldn't with anyone else because, to tell the truth, there aren't many Pilot fans out there. Most surprisingly, I got recognition for my work here from people I never would have expected would see it. Even if I can't see just one more game in person, and even if none of the mid-majors I saw this season can play just one more game, I've taken so much from this season it's hard for me to be sad that I'm finished. When you look at what we've all done this season, you have to believe we've only just started.
INDIANA 63, VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 61 03/17/2012
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 29-7 (15-3) -- D. Theus 1-3 0-0 2; B. Burgess 4-10 3-5 15; T. Daniels 4-13 0-0 10; R. Brandenberg 5-12 1-2 13; J. Reddic 4-8 0-2 8; D. Haley 1-2 1-2 3; T. Graham 2-6 1-2 6; B. Weber 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 23-57 6-13 61. INDIANA 27-8 (11-7) -- V. Oladipo 4-5 1-1 9; C. Zeller 5-9 6-8 16; W. Sheehey 4-6 0-0 8; J. Hulls 2-7 0-0 5; C. Watford 5-10 2-2 16; R. Abell 2-6 0-0 4; M. Roth 1-1 0-0 3; D. Elston 0-1 0-0 0; T. Pritchard 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-46 9-11 63.
Three-point goals: VCU 9-30 (B. Burgess 4-9; T. Daniels 2-8; D. Theus 0-1; R. Brandenberg 2-7; B. Weber 0-1; T. Graham 1-4), IND 6-13 (M. Roth 1-1; D. Elston 0-1; J. Hulls 1-4; C. Watford 4-5; W. Sheehey 0-1; R. Abell 0-1); Rebounds: VCU 20 (B. Burgess 7), IND 33 (C. Zeller 13); Assists: VCU 8 (D. Theus 5), IND 13 (V. Oladipo 6); Total Fouls -- VCU 16, IND 13; Fouled Out: VCU-J. Reddic; IND-None.