By Ryan Lazo
RICHMOND — Leading by just six points with 14:01 remaining, Virginia Commonwealth University needed to make a play to regain control of the game and retake the momentum from a Winthrop squad intent on scoring an upset over the No. 14 ranked team in the country.
Mo Allie-Cox, a 6-foot-6 forward, trailed the play as JeQuan Lewis raced up the court and headed toward net. The Eagles’ defense quickly collapsed on the freshman point guard, leaving Allie-Cox all by himself at the top of the key, beyond the 3-point line.
Allie-Cox never hesitated, lifting the ball over his head and fired, leaving bewildered looks on the faces of the VCU fans in attendance, but as the ball went through the nylon, the crowd erupted. The noise became deafening and the walls caved in on the Eagles.
“Man, when that one went in … it was almost like curtains,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said after the Rams (3-0) captured a 92-71 victory at Verizon Wireless Arena. “We used to say when we played at Duke, when you are at Cameron and their feet are set and have an open look — it’s touched by God, it’s going in. I almost feel that way here.”
While the Rams did not immediately shoot the lights out following Allie-Cox’s 3-pointer, part of his 10-point night on 4-of-4 shooting, they did take control. His three gave way to Rob Brandenburg swiping the ball away from the Eagles’ (2-1) Joab Jerome, taking it on a run from mid-court to the rack.
The quick 4-0 spurt forced a Winthrop timeout, but the Rams went right back to business as a Lewis drive toward the hoop resulted in a lay-in for one of his 11 points on the night on 3-of-7 shooting. It was a mindset of the Rams to continue attacking the Eagles at will, essentially taking away the fight of the squad.
“You can’t simulate it in practice. You can only try,” Kelsey said after VCU forced his team into 25 turnovers. “I think we took their first punch, took their second, took their third, but the cumulative effect of that pressure coming at you … it wore us down and that was the story of the game.”
But that would only be part of the story about a Rams’ squad which showed off the impressive depth at their disposal. While Winthrop relied heavily on a eight-man rotation, sporadically mixing in other players to give teammates breathers, VCU rolled out hockey line changes.
And even with the constant substitutions — no player played more than Reddic’s 28 minutes — there was no drop-off in the level of play. In fact, the VCU bench out-scored the Eagles by a 37 to 21 margin, helping to end the game with six different Rams’ players in double-digits.
“It speaks to our depth,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said of the balanced scoring. “We had a lot of guys play and give us contribution tonight … the six guys scoring in double figures is a good sign because it shows on a given night, anyone can step up and score.”
Yet, it wouldn’t be a Rams’ win without Graham tallying a double-figure scoring game as he dropped in 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting — his 34th double-digit scoring game in the last 39 — while also grabbing 10 rebounds. IT was Graham’s runner in the lane with 6:42 remaining that opened the floodgates for the Rams, extending the lead to 10 and resulting in a 21-9 run to end the game.
A big part of the run was the play of Melvin Johnson, who scored five consecutive points to force a Winthrop timeout. For his first bucket, Johnson received a pass behind the arc, pump-faked and got into the lane for a lay-in. Then, Lewis swiped the pockets of Winthrop’s Brandon Vega before dishing to Johnson for a 3-pointer.
The three prompted raucous cheering from the crowd, making the Siegal Center a hostile environment that even Kelsey could not help but speak of.
“I’ve coached a really long time in a lot of tough venues,” Kelsey said after the game. “This is my first opportunity to coach here and this place, this atmosphere that the fan base creates is what college basketball is all about.”
But it also has a lot to do with the team on the court, one that has gone 81-9 when scoring 70 or more points, having won 44 of the past 46 such contests. It’s the mark of a good team that after a big emotional win over Virginia, this Rams team remained focused and got the job done, showing the maturity of a dangerous team.
“Coach Smart was real vocal about us coming in here focused,” Rob Bradenberg said after his 11-point performance on 4-of-8 shooting. “The first half was iffy for us and I was proud of the way we responded.”
If VCU continues to respond to big wins with even greater efforts while continuing to showcase their gluttony of depth, they will be playing themselves to an even higher national ranking and an increased spotlight.