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Following Wednesday night’s daunting loss at Northeastern, VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart said his team had lacked a key ingredient to success: aggressiveness.
His team appeared to get the memo Saturday as it jostled and clawed its way past James Madison en route to a 70-66 conference victory behind upperclassmen Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen’s combined 39 points.
“It was a gritty win for us, I thought our seniors led the way,” Smart said. “I though our guys gritted their teeth for 40 minutes – we weren’t perfect – but we defended well, particularly in the second half, and we needed every one of those stops.”
The Rams out-rebounded the Dukes – a team that regularly out-rebounds opponents by a margin of 3.6 – 32-27 with help from senior guards Joey Rodriguez and Ed Nixon’s seven rebounds apiece, an area in the stat book in which VCU has been at a disadvantage in 15 games this season.
“We’ve talked about this before against other teams because we can be undersized sometimes at times; it’s a fight for your life down there,” Smart said. “I thought really from about halfway through the first half on, we did a better job, and for us to win the rebounding battle by five, that’s a victory for us.”
At the start, it seemed as if VCU would be in for a long day, allowing JMU to jump out to a 16-7 lead on the heels of big-man Denzel Bowles, who reeled off eight of his 14 first-half points to go with six rebounds in the first seven minutes.
The Rams regained composure despite the boisterous Madison faithful, creating a 17-6 run that helped push them into halftime maintaining a 39-36 lead.
The first half would only be a primer for the drama that was to ensue after the intermission.
The second half featured a true tug-of-war battle that saw the score knotted three times, all coming within the final six minutes.
After VCU had taken a 66-64 lead on two free-throws from Skeen, the Rams unwillingly offered JMU signs of life in the final minute.
Dukes’ junior guard Humpty Hitchens, who had been matched up with Rodriguez all afternoon, stole the ball from Skeen but committed a traveling violation seconds later.
That’s when VCU’s gritty style of play hit its peak.
With 23 seconds remaining in the game, Rodriguez attempted to drive into the lane but found nothing before kicking the ball out to Nixon, who then pinpointed Rodriguez wide-open on the baseline to hit a jumper and give the Rams a 68-64 lead.
Devon Moore converted a layup with 17 seconds left to cut the VCU lead to two. On the inbound, Rodriguez caught and had the ball jarred loose from him by a JMU defender, which ended up in the hands of Dukes’ freshman guard Chad Jackson in a scrum on the floor. The referees alleged that Jackson had touched out-of-bounds, signaling VCU basketball with limited time remaining on the clock.
Rodriguez’ shot – reminiscent of the jumper that buried Old Dominion just over two weeks ago – proved to be the eventual dagger while also being his first made field goal of the day after coming away empty on his first six attempts.
“The whole last two minutes I wanted to shoot the ball,” Rodriguez said.
When questioned why he had the urge to pull the trigger so late in the game Rodriguez said, “This whole year just wanting to have the ball at the end of the game, wanting to make the big play.”
Despite the pivotal shot made by Rodriguez, VCU’s defensive unit took charge in the second half, providing much needed stops down the stretch.
After posting 14 points in the first half, Bowles was limited to eight after the break courtesy of Skeen who had been matched up with him for the majority of the afternoon. Skeen, along with others, pressured Bowles into receiving the ball away from the basket in the second half, which created extra chores in the paint and forced ill-advised shots.
“I was trying to guard him as much as possible, and be real physical with him and pretty much just limit his touches because every time he touches the ball, he’s capable of scoring,” Skeen said. “He makes it look so easy, so my main thing was just deny him the ball and body him up and make sure I was physical with him at all times.”
The Rams avoided dropping two consecutive games – something they’ve done only four times in the past five seasons – by defeating the Dukes and remain tied for first place with George Mason, which defeated ODU later in the afternoon.
“Coming off a disappointing game against Northeastern, our guys showed a lot of resiliency today,” Smart said. “In this league I don’t care where you go on the road it’s a tough get, it’s tough to win that game, but in front of this hostile crowd here … our guys stepped up.”
Note: Senior guard Brandon Rozzell returned to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a broken hand. He went 1-for-3 – all 3-point attempts – for three points in 13 minutes of play. Smart said Rozzell was cleared to play on Friday but is still not 100 percent.