City Sports Report

VCU enjoys sweet, exhausting revenge

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by Jamison Hackelman (Photo by Amber Joubert)

With the game finally out of reach as Treveon Graham sank the final of two free throws with only a single second on the clock, the final buzzer sounded with more of a sigh of relief than of sheer ecstasy. VCU had taken the championship outright, 61-55, only falling behind Dayton by as many points early in the first half.

It was the third straight year the Rams found themselves playing in the Atlantic 10 Championship game, but only the first time they would cut down the net at the end. Winning four games in four days is difficult enough, but to end that run with a string of revenge games against teams that had gotten the better of them in the regular season; beating Dayton in such pronounced, defensive, HAVOC-wreaking fashion, it had to feel good.

“Just relief,” All-Championship Team member, and Most Outstanding Player Treveon Graham said. “All the hard work that we went through this season, all the adversity we had to go through.  When Bri was out, everybody had to get a new role and everybody had to step up, and just the satisfaction to know that all the hard work paid off.”

There was a staggeringly beautiful moment as the team cut down the net. Every player, every assistant, even administrators, climbed the ladder to take their twine mementos of victory. Typically, Coach Shaka Smart would have been the last, cutting down the remaining bit of the net, donning it as a fashionable championship necklace. The Rams had long made other plans.

“When I went out, January 31, they all came together and said, ‘Bri, we going to cut down the net, and you know who is going to be the last one holding the net?’” Briante Weber recalled to the media. “They told me it was going to be me, and I believed them.  And now we get here today and I was the one cutting down the net.  That made me very emotional.”

The VCU fans, an intimidating presence the entire weekend, erupted when Weber dropped his crutches and hobbled up the rungs of the ladder.

It was a hard-fought battle all game. VCU’s Graham led all scorers and rebounders with 20 points and 13 boards. Dayton’s Scoochie Smith gave the VCU defense nightmares off the pick-and-roll, so much so that VCU even switched to a zone scheme down the stretch, an anomaly for them as they’ve played zone less than five times all season.

“Yeah, they flipped it right there,” Dayton Coach Archie Miller said of the decision. “It was a good decision on their part to flip defenses.  We had a play called, didn’t work and they got a big steal out of it.”

Smith finished with 16 points for the Flyers, but it wasn’t quite enough. VCU’s Mo Alie-Cox, who pretty much had the sea of yellow Rams fans in his hip pocket all weekend long, went a perfect 6-6 from the floor, sending the crowd into fits of pandemonium with every single one of this 13 points.

VCU has been in the Atlantic 10 for three seasons now, and went to the tournament Championship game every year. That’s no easy task when the level of competition improves each of those years, particularly when it comes to looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament with less than a week to prepare.

“Last year when we lost, it was a tricky situation, because it’s Sunday, you’re about to find out who you’re going to play.  You have to turn the page quickly and you can’t be down about the loss for too long,” Coach Smart said. “This year we won and we are extremely excited about the win.  You want to cherish championships, and we are so happy about that.” They took their time to celebrate on the court knowing there was precious little of it for afterwards.”

“We have to turn the page.  We are going to find out in less than two hours where we play, where we’re going.  We’re going to get on a flight and go back home.  We’re going to rest our bodies and we’re going to prepare, because we’re not done.  We want to go make some noise.  We want to continue this season.  Hopefully our guys can learn some lessons from today and apply them wherever we go in the tournament.”

VCU will need to regain their focus pretty quickly as they face Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA on Thursday.

As for Dayton, this loss was particularly tough given their general strength of schedule. They were a lock for the tournament coming in, but this loss at the end of it all seemed to dampen their hopes of making it back to the Elite Eight as they did last season. Unfortunately for them, they are party to a play-in game at home against Boise State.

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