Game #9-529: Virginia Commonwealth Rams vs. Saint Louis BillikensMarch 17, 2013 1:00 pm
Game 11 of the Atlantic 10 tournament was the championship game between the league's two best teams. Last month, in its Chaifetz Arena, Saint Louis had defeated VCU handily, keyed by a 21-1 first half run that left little doubt as to the ultimate result. In this rematch at the Barclays Center, the Rams were determined to force a different outcome.My most enduring memory from my visit to Brooklyn was the fan support for VCU during this tournament. The distance from Richmond to the Barclays Center is just under 350 miles, but the turnout and enthusiasm of the VCU supporters made each of their contests feel like a home game for the Rams. I'd crossed paths with VCU fans previously at the 2011 Final Four, but my interactions with them over these four days really left me impressed by their love of their team. For those who had to go to war with the Rams, VCU certainly brought along a small army to support them in their battles.
In contrast, Saint Louis was the most distant A-10 team from Brooklyn, and not surprisingly they brought a smaller group of fans, though they were still vocal and very supportive. As is their nature, they advanced through the tournament with relatively less fanfare. Other than the blue strip running through Cody Ellis' hair, the Billikens didn't do a great deal to call attention to themselves - they just simply won games. While the Rams featured a band that is becoming nationally known for its intensity and power, the Saint Louis band pumped out old classics like "Here Comes the King (The Budweiser Theme Song)" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." The contrast in styles could not have been more evident, both on the court and off it, but the title matchup was very compelling.
Many of the games in the A-10 tournament were ultimately decided by a brief but dominant first half run in which one team separated itself from the other, with the trailing team never quite being able to make up that deficit. The championship game quickly shaped up in just that fashion. After a Treveon Graham basket gave VCU an early 2-0 lead, the Saint Louis defense took control of the game. Holding the Rams scoreless for almost six and a half minutes, during which VCU went 0-7 from the floor with six turnovers, the Billikens methodically built an 11-2 edge. Coach Shaka Smart was visibly frustrated as he searched for ways to get his offense untracked. Saint Louis was able to handle the ball against the Havoc pressure defense, and their ability to avoid turnovers left VCU struggling as they settled into a halfcourt game that they did not want.
As they tend to do, the Rams bounced back and quickly erased the deficit. Not coincidentally, much of their run came when Saint Louis point guard Kwamain Mitchell went to the bench for a brief rest. The Billikens turned it over six times in a span of seven possessions, and the game was soon tied at 12. Even during this stretch, Saint Louis had continued to do fairly well in breaking the pressure, but when they passed the ball up the court to their frontline players, those guys had problems hanging on to the ball as VCU defenders chased them down from behind. When Mitchell returned to the lineup, the Billikens settled back into a productive offensive pace. Mitchell handled the VCU pressure about as well as any guard I'd seen all season; he had a good sense of what was happening in front of him, and just as importantly, recognition of what was happening behind him as well. When he wasn't getting the ball up the court to an open teammate, he was knocking perimeter jump shots. Mitchell had two three-pointers in the final 5:30 of the first half, which helped provide his team with a 29-21 halftime advantage.
The first half had concluded poorly for VCU, and the second half began no better for them. Three-point specialist Troy Daniels picked up his third and fourth fouls in the first two minutes of the second stanza, and Saint Louis held a 34-23 lead as he went to the bench. The Rams were able to pound the ball inside on the next couple of possessions and cut the lead down to six, but the Billikens responded and quickly pushed the margin back into double digits, highlighted by a 3/4 court pass into tight coverage from Cory Remekun to Jordair Jett that led to a Jett layup. Remekun's pass was a thing of beauty, but it was a low percentage play, particularly against VCU's aggressive defenders, and Coach Jim Crews promptly informed Remekun that such passes were not approved by the bench.
While Saint Louis maintained a steady lead, you just had a sense that VCU had another run left in them. After a pair of free throws from Dwayne Evans extended the Saint Louis advantage to 45-32, the Rams got a much-needed three-pointer from Graham. Rob Brandenberg stole a pass on the next possession, and raced down the court, drew a foul, and converted a three-point play. The much anticipated run was here! Brandenberg's steal was the first of four Billiken turnovers in five possessions; the last of these was a steal by Juvonte Reddic in the backcourt that led immediately to a dunk. VCU had completed a 13-1 run in less than two and a half minutes, Crews called a timeout, and with Saint Louis clinging to a 46-45 lead, the VCU band reminded us one last time that we didn't want to go to war with them.
Out of the timeout, Saint Louis moved the ball from side to side and got a decent look from behind the arc for the blue-haired man, Ellis. His shot ripped through the net, and would ultimately be viewed as the most significant single play of the tournament. Graham soon countered for VCU with a three-pointer of his own to cut the lead back to one, but Ellis hit another jump shot, then Mitchell connected from long range, stretching the lead back to six. VCU made three of four free throws to cut the lead back to three, but Ellis again connected with a superhoop and Saint Louis fans started to celebrate. The Billikens struggled a bit to close out the championship, but VCU never seriously threatened the lead, and Saint Louis went on to a 62-56 victory.
As the players made their way through the post-game handshake line, the Saint Louis band started a chant of "Rick Majerus, Rick Majerus." I had already been thinking about their departed coach and how proud he'd be of his team's achievements this season, but this chant brought out a lot of emotions to all of those in attendance. Coach Crews soon would receive recognition for his leadership under those difficult circumstances, then the championship trophy was awarded.
(Footnote: It always ends in a loss. While each of these two teams left Brooklyn with high expectations for the NCAA tournament, they'd both be eliminated within 150 hours of stepping off of the Barclays Center court. For both Saint Louis and VCU, the end of the season would come suddenly and decisively. All that they'd each accomplished over the course of a long and successful year was obliterated from a blowout loss in the Round of 32 - VCU fell to Michigan and Saint Louis lost to Oregon. With time, memories will re-emerge of the daunting intimidation caused by the VCU Havoc defense, and of the tremendous adversity gallantly overcome by the A-10 champion Saint Louis. But for now, the agony of defeat exceeds all of the glory of their prior successes. T his game will hurt you, and the pain has not yet subsided.)
SAINT LOUIS 62, VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 56
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 26-8 (12-4) -- D. Theus 1-6 2-2 4; T. Graham 6-17 6-9 20; J. Reddic 6-9 3-5 15; B. Weber 2-5 2-2 6; R. Brandenberg 2-9 1-1 6; T. Daniels 0-5 0-0 0; M. Johnson 1-3 0-0 2; J. Guest 1-1 1-2 3; J. Tuoyo 0-1 0-0 0; D. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0; T. Okereafor 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-56 15-21 56.
SAINT LOUIS 27-6 (13-3) -- D. Evans 4-6 8-11 16; R. Loe 1-4 5-6 7; C. Ellis 3-10 1-2 9; J. Jett 1-3 2-4 4; M. McCall Jr. 0-3 1-2 1; G. Glaze 2-4 0-0 4; J. Barnett 0-1 0-0 0; C. Remekun 0-0 2-4 2. Totals 11-31 19-29 43.
Three-point goals: VCU 3-18 (T. Daniels 0-4; D. Theus 0-1; R. Brandenberg 1-5; B. Weber 0-1; T. Graham 2-6; J. Tuoyo 0-1), SLU 2-10 (K. Mitchell 3-4; C. Ellis 2-7; R. Loe 0-1; M. McCall 0-2); Rebounds: VCU 32 (T. Graham 12), SLU 29 (D. Evans 8); Assists: VCU 5 (D. Theus 2), SLU 11 (M. McCall 4); Total Fouls -- VCU 25, SLU 19; Fouled Out: VCU-R. Brandenberg; SLU-None.
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