With just under seven minutes to play in last night’s Rock Fight (capital letters are necessary) win over MTSU, Blue Raiders point guard Quavious Copeland hit a three to give MTSU a 49-44 lead. It was the first time all evening I squirmed in my seat.
You see, the VCU defense was playing well–not perfect, but with a spirit and grit you need on the road. The coaching mantra is always that defense and desire travel, and it had, so I figured the Rams would find just enough offense at just the right time to pull out a victory. There was no reason to sweat for the first 30 or so minutes.
And then Copeland hit that shot and JeQuan Lewis missed the return fire. And I squirmed. These are games we’ve seen VCU lose all too often.
Just last year, it was LaSalle (Jordan Price) and the Bonnies (Dion Wright). The year before that Georgetown would not miss a free throw, and Nate Freaking Buss hit shots at Northern Iowa. It’s a long list–kid from the other team hits a big shot that takes you plum out of any comfort zone you may have enjoyed.
(Side note: and to be fair, we’ve been on the good side of this. There is also a long list of shots made by VCU where Robby and I look at each other and simultaneously think: that was a game-changer.)
Turns out I squirmed one possession too early. VCU closed the game from that point about as efficiently as you can muster. In the final seven minutes, before the teams traded garbage buckets with less than 15 seconds, it was a 16-5 run to, effectively, end the game. VCU started the second half shooting 3-20 and finished 5-10 down the stretch.
The defense did not let up. It forced MTSU into an 0-5 whitewash, with two turnovers. Five free throws was all the Blue Raiders could muster. VCU found another gear late in a rock fight. That’s the hallmark of true toughness.
Will Wade told me afterward his message to the team was simple and straightforward–don’t let them get to 60 points. Wade figured VCU would find a way to scratch out 61, but the way in which MTSU can muck up a game made 60 an important number.
He was right.
Offensively there were struggles, but to me this is one of those games where the other guys made us struggle. MTSU mixes and matches defenses as much as anyone we will see this year. Different zones, different man-to-man schemes, and all adjusted based on personnel.
It’s the kind of defense that’s particularly frustrating, because as soon as you get comfortable or see success against one look, MTSU changes the defense and you have to start all over again. So I’m not on red alert for offensive struggles because everyone struggles offensively against them.
Once again, I feel like the main takeaway is that VCU does not have to rely on one or two players to make plays.
- Jordan Burgess played probably as bad a first half as you could imagine. The second half saw him grab five rebounds and two steals.
- Doug Brooks managed one free throw, but the Wisconsin Defense Doug showed up. His late steal and rebound off of a free throw miss were gigantic.
- Korey Billbury was 3-5 from the field with four rebounds in the second half. All nine of his second half points came in the final six minutes, a stretch in which he outscored all of MTSU. And Billbury changes the attitude of this team. That kid. Man.
- Hamdy gave the team an offensive lift in the first half. That baseline spin move was, uh, unexpected and beautiful. Granted Hamdy has to finish better around the rim, and he has to lose his James Harden Defensive Principles handbook, but he gives the team a lift every single game.
- The Melvin struggled from the field, in general, but late in the second half he buried a three and then a step-back 15-footer.
It was another step forward, with a gigantic task ahead. Three of them, in fact, beginning Sunday with Florida State.
All of what I wrote above is true, and I love the makeup of this team, but VCU needs to get sharper on both ends. Shot selection was not the best last night, and the team is still coming along with understanding zone defense rotations. That sharpness is the differentiator in good and great teams.
However last night was very important for the quantifiables–a good road RPI win, and oh yes, a win. But the team now carries with it a win in a game they will play again in late February, and middle March. These rock fights define the postseason and victory in them demands toughness, and sharpness.
The seeds were sown last night. An attention to detail and sharp focus on execution in the days and weeks ahead will cultivate them. And hopefully we reap the bounty in March.