Assistant Sports Editor
At a recent team dinner, Jamie Skeen sat down and told his fellow teammates and coaches that he wanted the ball more.
The response came in a timely manner for Skeen who went 8-of-13 from the floor with 23 points to lead the Rams to an 89-85 victory over UCLA in the NIT Tip-Off Consolation game.
After a tough loss to No. 23 Tennessee in the semifinals in which VCU shot with a little more than 30 percent, the Rams shook off the jitters of playing on the large stage of Madison Square Garden and got down to business.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys battled,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “Being able to throw the ball into (Jamie) Skeen on the block and get positive production from there was a big key for us.”
Utilizing the same senior leadership trait he has all season, Skeen would not allow the Rams to fall into another slow start to a game, so he supplied an early attack on the basket and scored the game’s first six points.
With less than five minutes off the clock in the first half, Skeen tallied 10 points and four rebounds to give VCU a 12-8 lead over UCLA.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Skeen said. “I was very aggressive on the backboard, and so whenever I saw one of my teammates miss a shot, I was just on it.”
Three consecutive 3-pointers on Rams’ possessions, including a momentum-shifting jumper by junior Bradford Burgess, gave VCU an 11-point lead with just under five minutes remaining in the first half.
The Bruins would tame the fire however, with a 14-6 run heading into halftime, headlined by two back-to-back threes by sharpshooter Malcolm Lee that cut the Rams’ lead to three, 40-37.
VCU found a way to feed the ball inside in the first half, scoring 22 of its 40 points in the paint, improving from its 16 points underneath overall against Tennessee.
The Rams would come out of the half looking to pull away once again with help from Burgess and senior Joey Rodriguez who fired up two 3-pointers to put VCU up 50-41 just under four minutes into the second half.
Moments of tough defense would keep the Bruins in the game and manage to cut the lead to one on two separate occurrences down the final three-minute stretch.
Two consecutive UCLA turnovers converted to a dunk from Skeen and a bench-exploding one-handed slam by Brandon Rozzell would give VCU an 84-79 lead, forcing the Bruins into a fouling situation for the remainder of the game.
The Rams would be sent to the line with less than a minute remaining on four separate occasions, forcing immediate improvement on a part of the game in which VCU struggled at the beginning of the season.
A set of clutch free-throws by guard Darius Theus was followed by one-of-two free throws made by Rodriguez, which awarded the Bruins a chance to tie on the ensuing possession, ended up giving the Rams an 88-85 lead.
Lee dribbled down the court but drew traffic, forcing him to give the ball to forward Reeves Nelson, who had been practicing his deep shot in the off-season. But a bad miss gave VCU the game and the ball with just under three seconds remaining.
“(Nelson) Reeves has been practicing his shot a lot, so I had confidence in him,” Lee said. “I easily could have shot it myself, but I saw him open.”
Down the stretch, the Rams made five-of-eight shots at the free throw line, where they have shot just .630 percent so far this season.
“We made just enough free-throws; I would’ve liked to make more,” Smart said. “I’m proud of our guys, they stepped up and showed a lot of fight.”
In just its third meeting with a Pac-10 conference member, VCU wreaked havoc on UCLA, forcing 21 turnovers which converted into 24 points for the Rams.
“You can see how motivated they were to play against us,” Bruins head coach Ben Howland said. “They’ve got a very, very good team, so you have to give them a lot of credit.”
After the Rams were excused from the 2009 NCAA Tournament by the Bruins in the first round on a 65-64 heartbreaking loss, revenge came at a perfect time for a VCU organization that now has the chance Wednesday against South Florida to win three out of four meetings with teams from the ACC, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC.