VCU 65, Rhode Island 60. Or, Willis Reed Walked Through That Door…
Monday afternoon, as he prepared to board the plane that would carry VCU to Kingston and an eventual gutty 65-60 win over Rhode Island, Treveon Graham was having a problem. He dropped his bottle of Gatorade to the ground, and when he bent down to pick it up, he dropped a bag of snacks. He picked up the snacks and his headphones fell off his shoulders and to the pavement. Graham couldn’t corral everything he had with him.
Shaka Smart, standing behind him, remarked, “you got everything Tre?”
Coach, I’d say so.
I’ll leave the place-in-history and remember-when discussions to others, but Graham’s performance last night left people shaking their heads, and searching for adjectives. It was inspiring.
Said Briante Weber: “When he came back it definitely lifted up our spirits, even more to know that he was going to battle through (his hurt ankle). I felt if he could do it why not all 13 of us?”
The stat line says 26 points and eight rebounds, but you and I know it was so very much more than that. But here’s the thing. Graham putting the team on his back was not limited to a post-injury spree. Yes, his three with 2:30 to play gave VCU a 59-58 lead. It was the first Rams lead since 7-5 at the 17:03 mark, a span of 34:33. However that was more the kaboom to an already inferno of Train.
Rhode Island led by seven with about 11 minutes to play in the first half, and VCU was teetering. Graham hit a jumper. Rhody was back up by eight with about three minutes to play in the first half, and Graham hit a jumper.
Rhody scored again and led by nine, it’s biggest lead, at the 2:32 mark and Graham hit a three. Every time Rhode Island threw a haymaker at VCU, Graham calmly caught the fist, and strongarmed them to the ground.
It was the same way in the second half.
Rhode Island held a seven-point lead with around 14 minutes to play and Graham hit another three. Rhody scored to get it back to six and he answered. It was four and he hit a three to cut the lead to one possession at 41-40, really the first major glimmer of light in a tough game.
(Interlude for teamship, as Rhody went up 49-40 and then players hit singles–we will get to that in a minute. Mo Alie Cox–let’s not minimize his impact on the game–grabbed an offensive rebound and scored. Okay that’s more of a double, but you get the picture.)
Terry Larrier sandwiched two free throws around a basket and a Rhody hoop to set up You-Know-Who’s game-tying three with 5:35 to go. Treveon Graham, at no point, allowed Rhode Island to get outside arm’s distance.
Rhody scored and Graham retied the game at 53-53. The home team went back up by five, but The Melvin drained a step-back three, setting up our full circle story back to Treveon Graham’s three-pointer that gave VCU a 59-58 lead.
Every. Big. Play. Direct deposit I tell you, although last night Treveon Graham showed us the paperwork.
This coaching staff likes to talk about hitting singles, not home runs. The central theme: don’t try to make the heroic play, make the simple play and things will work out. That extends to making individual plays that lead to team success.
Credit Jarred Guest, who played only two minutes in the second half last night, but made what Shaka Smart called the defensive play of the game on EC Matthews. VCU switches on ball screens, and Guest found himself at the top of the key guarding Rhody’s assassin. Rhode Island needed a three, or at worst a quick two, and Guest was up to the task. Guest held his ground, did not bite on a pump fake, kept his hand up to discourage a shot, and forced a travel on Matthews.
Alie-Cox made the same play in the first half and forced a bad Matthews shot at the end of the shot clock. The ability for our bigs to guard the perimeter is something that matters.
Three other notes gathered on the plane home, and a lesson:
Briante Weber sealed the game by hitting all four free throws when the team had made 5 of 17 to that point. Side note: Melvin Johnson missed four free throws last night. He had missed three free throws all season to this point. Go figure.
JeQuan Lewis had four assists and only one turnover in the second half. The rest of the team had two assists and six turnovers.
Weber did not have a good first 30 minutes. However he entered the game with 10:39 to play and VCU trailing by five points. Weber played those last 10 minutes very well.
Rhode Island is good, and the Ryan Center is a tough place to play. It was amped up and a fun atmosphere. Those Rams are headed for double-digit A10 wins, there is no doubting. They also played with a level of confidence that bordered on arrogance.
Don’t let this get past you: VCU kept doing VCU things, never bought in to the dramatic preening, and won on the road in a tough environment against a talented opponent who played hard. I don’t know the difference in good, very good, and great basketball teams, but I will tell you this: lesser teams lose that game. We’ve got something brewing here.
Here’s the great thing if you’re a Rhode Island fan, VCU fan, or A10 fan. Rhode Island learned last night the difference between thinking you’re an elite team in the A10, and actually being an elite team in the A10. That’s a lesson they will take to heart, and get better, and I’m all for it–the more good teams the more fun this is.