By Ryan Lazo
RICHMOND — For the game’s first first 27:03, Old Dominion University did everything it needed to keep Virginia Commonwealth University in check. They got to the loose balls, handled the press with ease and dominated the points in the paint battle. But the Rams can only be held down for so long.
Aaron Bacote‘s 3-pointer at 12:53 of the second half put the Monarchs ahead by one, 41-40. It would also mark the last time Old Dominion held the lead as the cumulative effect of havoc took its toll on their eight-man rotation.
VCU’s JeQuan Lewis started the run with a mid-range jump-shot, then Briante Weber sped up the court and found a cutting Juvonte Reddic for a two-handed slam, forcing a Monarchs’ timeout. But the 30-second timeout did nothing to cool down the Rams and fill up the Monarchs’ near-empty tanks.
Reddic posted up the undersized Monarchs and hit a right-handed hook-shot. After the made shot, Weber stole the inbounds pass and glided to the hoop for his only 2 points of the game. But it was the freshman guard from Dickinson, Tenn. who put the exclamation point in the VCU run with a dagger 3-pointer, extending the Rams’ lead to 10, 51-41 and it only grew from there.
Old Dominion managed just two field goals over the last 8:12 of action, handing VCU all the ammunition it needed to dispatch the Monarchs, 69-48, at Verizon Wireless Arena.
“They just keep coming at you,” Monarchs’ head coach Jeff Jones said of the Rams. “They wear you down … I think fatigue got us and give VCU credit for that because they make you work on every possession. Offensively, they keep coming at you and they kept sending guys to boards and ultimately we didn’t have enough in the tank.”
It’s the same party line many coaches speak of upon a game’s regulation when facing the Rams (8-2).
They can dissect it on tape, simulate it in practice and study it each day prior to the game, but there is no way to simulate the cumulative effect havoc has during actual game-speed. Old Dominion (4-5) started off the game hot from the field, hitting 8-of-10 shots with most of those coming from inside the painted area.
Yet, the energy spent moving up the court against the havoc defense slowed them down. The ability to get into the lane diminished as their energy levels dropped, leaving them to make just 13-of-56 shots to end the game, including just six field goals in the second half.
“As the second half went on, they got tired and our style of play got to them,” Treveon Graham said after his 13-point, four-rebound effort on 4-of-8 shooting. “For the last couple of weeks, coach has really been emphasizing stops and I think that’s what we did in the second half.”
But Shaka Smart also recognized a perceived weakness of the Monarchs during film study — their lack of height.
Old Dominion has just one player in its regular rotation above 6-foot-7, giving the Rams the advantage. With a concerted effort to get the ball into the paint, Reddic responded with his best game of the season.
The 6-foot-9 forward battered the Monarchs underneath with his assortment of moves including posterizing slams and baby hook-shots, setting a season-high in points with 24 on 12-of-16 shooting. In addition, the senior recorded 12 rebounds, five of those on the offensive glass, swatted away four shots and swiped two steals.
“Juvonte, this was his best game of the year so far,” Smart said after the win. “He’s a guy who is central to everything we do, but when he plays with that much activity and energy, it really gives us a boost.”
It was a boost desperately needed for a Rams squad which continues to struggle to score in the half-court offense. Take out both Reddic and Graham’s double-digit point-efforts — for Graham it was his 37th in the last 41 games — and the rest of the team shot an abysmal 11-of-48, good enough for 22 percent.
However, perhaps Lewis can be the answer to the Rams’ shooting woes.
The freshman guard scored 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting, but five of those came in the decisive second half run, including the dagger 3-pointer he took without hesitation.
“He’s a really good shooter. He’s one of the top three shooters we have,” Smart said. “He’s a guy at AAU basketball, high school basketball, he made six, eight, 10 threes. He can really shoot.”
But Smart also needs to figure out a way to get this VCU side to play from the opening tip.
The Rams were seemingly out-worked in all areas during the game’s opening 10 minutes of action before a timeout woke the team from its slumber.
“You have to battle entitlement,” Smart said. “It’s very, very easy to show up to the arena and say, ‘we got this.’ It doesn’t work that way. You have to make it happen. You have to play possession by possession. I think early in the game, we struggled with that a little bit.”
After 10 games, it’s clear this Rams team is one of the most talented around, sitting atop the nation in forced turnovers and steals per game. Yet, it’s their mindset which could hold them back, emphasizing a need to find the heart of a team with a killer instinct.