For VCU, third time’s a charm as the men’s basketball team defeated University of Dayton, 71-65, to win their first Atlantic 10 championship.
A team that many felt was on the bubble entering the conference tournament, the win now earns the Rams an automatic bid into the NCAA’s elite.
“The goal when you come up here to Brooklyn is to win,” Shaka Smart, head coach, said.
Up two points with 1:13 remaining, Smart went with a rare call on defense to the play zone. Sophomore Doug Brooks strips Dayton guard Scoochie Smith to find guard JeQuan Lewis on the fast break. That puts the Rams up four, 63-59 with 50 seconds left on the shot clock.
Two Dayton fouls on freshman Terry Larrier would push the Rams up five, 67-62, with 28 seconds remaining. A Lewis foul on a 3-point attempt by Dayton’s Jordan Sibert got the Flyers within two, 67-65 with 10 seconds remaining.
Closing in, Dayton almost caused a turnover from Graham’s inbound pass. Two attempts by the Freight Train were snuffed, followed by Smart calling a timeout on the second attempt.
The Rams were dangerously close to a five-second violation. Smart subbed Melvin Johnson for Graham. Free throws by Lewis and Graham ended the game and awarded the Rams their first conference championship in the A-10.
Graham was named the A-10 tournament’s Most Valuable Player. The 6-foot-6 Marylander was also named to the A-10 conference championship team, alongside redshirt-sophomore Mo Alie Cox.
Alie-Cox concluded his impressive run in Brooklyn with 13 points on 6-6 shooting. The big man said he felt he played well in last year’s tournament run.
“I just tried to build on that, “ said Alie-Cox. “And coming into this week, Coach was telling me he’s going to give me the ball a lot and he always tells me I’m one of the best players in the conference. So I just try to come in here and play like this.”
The road to the A-10 title started with the players rallying behind senior Briante Weber, who season-ending injury sparked a determination in the Rams that would not be derailed. Weber ceremoniously cut down the last string of the net, a promise the players made to him after he was hurt.
“When I went out, Jan. 31st, they all came together and said: They told me it was going to be me and I believed them,” said Weber. “And now we get here today and I was the one cutting down the net, that made me very emotional.”
Graham felt the win was special for Weber and the team.
“It means a lot,” said Graham. “We told Bri when he went down, we were going to do it for him. The rest of the season was for him. We dug down and everybody had to find themselves.”
Multiple runs by both teams kept the championship game close. Down two to start, the Rams would score six unanswered to pull ahead.
The Flyers respond with an 11-0 run to retake the lead 18-12 only to allow separate runs of 10-0 and 9-0, VCU’s way, the latter of which put VCU ahead by double digits 36-26 seconds into the second half.
A comfortable lead evaporated as a result the play from Dayton’s Smith and the A-10 First Teamer Sibert, who both finished with 16 and 14, respectively.
Dayton tied the game on the three occasions in the second half. With 1:46 remaining, two free-throws by Sibert brought the game even at 59. Graham’s layup and Brooks’s outlet pass to Lewis on the fast break would give the Rams the lead it would not surrender en route to their first A-10 conference championship.
Lewis and Larrier’s 15 and 20 point performances rounds out the Rams’ double-digit performances.
Junior Melvin Johnson’s nine points all came from downtown as the long distance shooter hit 3-7 from the floor. Johnson connected on 13 three-pointers in this year’s tournament, tying for third most in a championship series.
The Rams made 13-21 free-throws (61.9 percent) and 24-56 (42.9 percent) overall from the floor. The Rams entered the championship averaging 10 three’s a game in the tournament and finished 10-27 (37 percent) from beyond the arc.
The win sees VCU become just the second team to defeat the number one (Davidson College) and number two (University of Dayton) seeds en route to the A-10 title.
The team now waits to see who they will face in the NCAA tournament.