By Ryan Lazo
RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth University may have been a No. 8 seed when it came to the Atlantic 10 Tournament, but it takes just a few minutes of watching their terrifying ball-pressure filled 2-3 zone and uptempo offense to realize just how dangerous they can be.
The Dayton Flyers, winners of 21 games during the regular season including a 14-2 mark in Atlantic 10 play, had earned an opening round bye and a No. 24 ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll based on their dominating offensive game having averaged 83.6 points per game during the regular season. However, Dayton could have met their match against the Rams.
From the opening tip-off this felt different as Dayton head coach Jim Jabir was forced into using a timeout just 2:24 into the game as the Rams went on a 5-0 run. While the Flyers would recover momentarily, it would not last as the athletic quickness of VCU showed its effect on almost every offensive possession.
Dribble-drive penetration from the Rams’ Zakia Williams led to wide-open shots from the outside as the Rams connected on five treys throughout a dominating first half of play which saw VCU lead by as much as 17 points and executed an extended 10-0 run. However, as the lead continued to be cut into by the talented Flyers, there was never a sense of panic among the Rams players.
Even as Dayton’s Ally Malott scored a turnaround jumper to tie the game with 1:03 remaining — the first time since the 17:58 mark of the first half the game was tied — VCU knew they would have a chance at the end. Although their opportunity would not be converted on as a turnover led to a Celeste Edwards steal and lay-in giving Dayton the lead with just 6.2 seconds left.
But the Rams’ Keira Robinson drew a foul while dribbling feverishly up the court and had a chance to once again pull even with two free throws. Robinson hit the first before a whistle signaled a Dayton timeout, taking her out of her rhythm as the shot clanked off iron, leaving VCU shellshocked in a 62-61 loss.
“Heck of a game against a heck of a team,” Rams head coach Marlene Stollings said after the game. “They’re extremely talented, go deep and are ranked in the Top 25 of the nation. I’m just so proud of our kids on their performance today. Certainly disappointed in losing … but what an unbelievable effort by our kids.”
It was the type of effort which brings hope for the future of a VCU program which is trending upward in just Stollings’ second-season at the helm. While there are no moral victories in sports, the Rams’ performance highlighted the type of talent up and down the roster.
VCU entered the season with the least amount of experience of any Atlantic 10 team with just three seniors and seven true freshman, yet it did not affect their production on the court. Stollings led the Rams to a 22-win season, their first 20+ win season since 2009 and orchestrated the program’s longest winning-streak with a 13-game stretch of dominance.
It was why Jabir noted his team faced one of the tougher match-ups any team could have faced in this tournament because of the style of play VCU runs. Stollings’ 2-3 zone is nicknamed Fury because of a penchant to force turnovers which the Rams did plenty of in a seaosn they led the Atlantic 10 in forced turnovers with 21.1 per game while also running a high-octane offense.
And that’s not to mention the off-the-dribble ability of nearly every member of the Rams which helps create open driving lanes and wide-open attempts from 3-point range. It’s what put the back-to-back regular season champions in the early deficit to begin with.
“VCU is a really good basketball team,” Jabir said after his team’s come-from-behind win. “They are tough to play with because of their zone and athleticism … I thought this was the toughest draw. For being a one seed, we were rewarded in having to play the toughest match-up in the tournament.”
But the scary thought for the rest of the Atlantic 10 is they will become even tougher.
As one of the youngest teams in the conference, VCU’s seven freshman were responsible for 44 percent of their scoring-output on the season, led by Isis Thorpe’s 12.7 points per game and 70 field goals from beyond the arc who dropped in 10 points against Dayton. Throp was followed by Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team selection Keira Robinson who started all but one game this season for the Rams and also scored 10 points against the Flyers.
Throw in the likely improvement of sophomore Jessica Pellechio who has developed into one of the conference’s premier sharp-shooters and an incoming freshman class ranked No. 38 in the country, the Rams are a team which will challenge for the title in future seasons.
“To be sitting here so quickly with the group of talented youngsters who know what this is about and the work-ethic it takes day-in and day-out … and a highly touted class coming in next year,” Stollings said. “We’re full-speed ahead with the program and what we want to do.”
With Fury gaining reinforcements and adding an additional year of experience, it may be opponents who are running full-speed ahead in the opposite direction as the Rams make a run to the elite.
Ryan Lazo is the Sports Editor for The Hopewell News, covering eight high schools, Richard Bland and Virginia State University. You can follow him at @ByRyanLazo.