What a year a difference makes.
Exactly one year after accepting the head coaching vacancy at VCU, Shaka Smart led VCU to its first ever non-conference postseason championship in school history Wednesday night after defeating St. Louis 71-65 in the second and deciding game of the CBI Championship.
The win, which was sparked by a career-high 27 points from junior guard Brandon Rozzell (Richmond/Highland Springs), was made all the bit sweeter for VCU because it came on the road where the Rams struggles have been highly documented all season long.
“I’m really happy we won the championship but I’m happier with the resolve we showed in this game,” said junior guard and tournament MVP Joey Rodriguez (Oviedo, Fla. /Lake Howell). “We pulled together and pulled through and that’s the best win we could have,” Rodriguez said.
VCU came into the game knowing they only had to take one of a possible two remaining games in St. Louis to lift a CBI Championship that would mitigate much of the disappointment that came after an early exit from the CAA Tournament and a subsequent snub from the National Invitation Tournament.
Nevertheless, a St. Louis team that is equally as excellent at home, with a mark of 18-3, came out the aggressors and jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead. VCU didn’t get on the board until four minutes in and Larry Sanders earned a foul 30 seconds into the game after not having a single foul in the first game of the
series—only the third time he’s accomplished such a feat in his college tenure.
After VCU fought its way back into the contest, both teams took turns exchanging leads as VCU got almost its entire production out of junior forward Jamie Skeen
(Charlotte N.C./Wake Forest) and Rozzell, who scored ten in the first period.
However the Billikins took control of the contest after posting an 11-2 run with just under two minutes remaining in the first half and took a 24-33 lead into halftime.
VCU came out with a quick run of its own in the second half, quickly scoring five to cut the lead down to four, yet St. Louis continued weathering the storm, mostly through the play of forward Willie Reed who finished with a team-high 16 points, and looked like they would hold on to force a game three Friday night.
Yet after Skeen banked an impossible shot high off the glass to give the Rams a 63-61 lead with just over two minutes remaining, the Rams closed the game out with six of their remaining eight free throws to ensure their road demons would be exorcised once and for all.
“I’m happy for our guys because we knew when we got into this championship series that even if we won Monday we were going to have to win the championship on the road. And let’s be honest, we haven’t been as good on the road,” Smart said. “I think it shows tremendous growth.”