Defeated, but not without a fight, VCU’s Cinderella run was halted at the hands of Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Chesapeake Bay Arena in Oklahoma City.
The 85-81 loss in front of a 14,000-deep OU crowd was a tale of two halves for VCU, as the Rams had a nightmarish start that led to a halftime deficit of 44-31. But VCU held Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield to just seven first half points.
“I think he just missed shots,” said senior Melvin Johnson. “In the beginning of the game, Korey and Jordan did a good job arriving on the catch, forcing him to take some tough shots.”
The Sooners capitalized on a smaller VCU frontcourt to start the contest, out-rebounding VCU 25-13 in the first half.
The turning point of the contest came when head coach Will Wade decided to give reserves in sophomore Mike Gilmore and junior Doug Brooks a chance to make their presence known. The two brought scrappy play, silencing the OU crowd with 3-point shots and pesky defense.
“I just wanted to give us a spark,” Gilmore said. “I just wanted to keep this thing going for as long as I could.
Gilmore attributed his early play, then long run on the bench, this season to being passive and not ready to shoot the ball. He said he wanted to go in and fire at will, knowing he could knock down the key shots VCU needed to keep pace with OU.
Brooks has played with a chip on his shoulder all season. Understanding his role after sitting behind seniors Korey Billbury and Johnson, the 3-point specialists wanted to get the guys going early with energy and aggressive play.
“We came back fighting, we had them on their heels the whole game,” Brooks said. “ Basically we were out there just trying to play for each other and play for our seniors.”
In his last performance wearing a VCU uniform, Johnson did all he could to keep his team alive. The Bronx native tallied 23 points, knocking down five big 3-pointers that brought the game back to VCU.
“I mean, I think I had a pretty good career — a roller coaster ride,” Johnson said. “But just coming into this year, I really blocked all distractions, really locked in.”
Johnson was adamantly positive about the play of junior guard JeQuan Lewis, saying it’s Lewis’ team now and he expects him to get the team back to the NCAA Tournament next year and to go even further.
“I just told JeQuan in the locker room, please keep working,” Johnson said. “He’s a big-time player, as you can see. Next year he’s going to be extremely dangerous when he has the green light.”
Lewis recorded his second consecutive 20-point outing in the Big Dance. The up-tempo guard registered 22 points on an efficient 9-15 shooting. He also had nine assist to add to the eight he had in the win against Oregon State.
Lewis did it all for VCU in Sunday’s loss. Matched up with Jordan Woodward and Isaiah Cousins, two big guards for OU, Lewis held his own and was the catalyst behind the 14-point comeback in the second half that found VCU with its first lead of the game with eight minutes to play.
“When we came out in the first half, we were a little slow and going with the motions,” Lewis said. “But in the second half, we didn’t come here to lose, so we had it in the front of our minds that we’re going to put up a fight.”
No doubt VCU put up a well-fought match for what many considered an easy OU win. But the Sooners’ Hield was just a different breed.
After recovering from just seven first half points, Hield, a senior from the Bahamas, rattled off 29 second half points to lead his team to a win.
“He’s just a phenomenal player, the best player I’ve seen in college basketball,” said VCU Head Coach Will Wade.
As soon as VCU found a way to get back into the contest, Buddy had a big-time three to silence the run and put a dagger in the hearts of the Ram fans that came out in support of their team in Oklahoma City.
The Rams out-scored OU in the second half 50-41, but missed costly free throws at the end of the game, resulting in the narrow victory for OU.
“I think this is the best one because it means a lot, because it’s the NCAA Tournament, big stage, win or go home,” Hield said when asked where this game ranked for him. “And you don’t get these moments back every time.”
The Rams end the season 25-11 and co-champions of the Atlantic 10 division, in a year they were picked to finish fifth in the A-10. The season may have officially ended, but the legacy of Johnson and the play of his fellow senior Billbury will be a story for the ages.
“I just came here having faith hoping everything will work out,” Billbury said. “I got more than what I expected and I just can’t thank everyone enough for supporting me. It’s been crazy, it’s been a real nice ride.”
Wade expressed his gratitude for the resilient play of his team this season, saying the comeback performance today is indicative of the mindset the Rams have portrayed all year.
The game ended in a loss, but the team battled at the face of adversity. In front of a dominant OU crowd, VCU flexed its muscles, granting the 14,000 Sooners in attendance a moment to exhale when it was all said and done.
“We’ve been that way all year,” Wade said. “We’ve been resilient and we’ve always just battled, battled, battled.”
Sports Editor, Bryant Drayton
Bryant is a sports advocate who’s always smiling. He is a senior print and online journalism major aspiring for a career as a professional or college football columnist. Bryant currently covers high school football games for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn
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Brooke is a senior pursuing a BFA in photography & film and a minor in media studies. Prior to her role as Photo Editor, Brooke was a staff photographer for the CT. Brooke’s work has been featured at a number of exhibitions and she previously interned at Candela Gallery in Richmond. Brooke has experience photographing for news, sports and entertainment. // Twitter | Facebook | Portfolio