Men’s basketball split a pair of marquee non-conference matchups last week against Princeton University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Rams toppled the Tigers Tuesday night at the Siegel Center by a final of 81-70 and were embarrassed by the Fighting Illini at American Airlines Arena in Miami on Saturday, 64-46.
VCU suffered three consecutive double-digit deficits at the hands of St. John’s University, Louisiana State University and Princeton before battling hard to pull off tense wins.
Wade told the Richmond-Times Dispatch these slow starts were a point of emphasis leading up to the Rams’ Saturday afternoon matchup in South Beach with the University of Illinois.
“We’ve just got to come out with an attacking mindset, and we won’t get down like that.” Wade said. “If we can start the game off well, once we get going, teams have a hard time scoring on us. We just can’t start the game off like that.”
The Rams momentarily solved their early-game woes by jumping off to a hot start against the Fighting Illini.
Junior guard Jonathan Williams started after missing the previous game due to a virus, and got the Black and Gold on the board with a pull-up jump shot from the free throw line less than a minute into the contest.
Subsequent drives and finishes from Lewis and Doughty gave the Rams an early 7-1 lead. Just over a minute later, junior forward Justin Tillman provided a spark on the defensive end with consecutive blocks before an up and under reverse finish on the other end pushed the lead to 11-4.
The VCU burst was short lived, however, as the Illini came charging back to take a 31-21 lead going into halftime. Illinois starting forward Leron Black had 12 first-half points on 6 of 8 shooting from the charity stripe.
The Illini, employing a 2-3 zone, held the Rams to their lowest scoring half of the season. Doughty kept the Black and Gold afloat with nine points before the break.
For the second game in a row, the Rams came out of the locker room with a sense of urgency they lacked in the first half. An 11-0 surge allowed them to get back into the contest.
Senior starting forward Ahmed Hamdy provided an immediate offensive spark with back to back spin moves and finishes under the basket.
Allie-Cox supplied the thump on the defensive end with a series of blocks that led to opportunities for Lewis, Doughty and Brooks in transition.
Just like that, the Illinois lead evaporated and the Rams found themselves down just one, 35-34, with 12:35 still to play.
Similar to the Princeton Tigers, the Fighting Illini refused to go away after watching VCU storm back from a double-digit deficit. Unlike the Tigers, however, Illinois matched the Black and Gold with a second half-run of their own.
After clawing back to within one, VCU could not get over the hump and regain their early lead. Lewis, limited by a foot injury that briefly forced him out in the first half, finished 1-6 from three-point range.
The Rams went 2 of 18 from downtown as a team and shot 30.2 percent from the field, as the Illinois zone kept them out of the paint and forced them into taking shots out of rhythm.
“We settled for jump shots,” Wade said. “When you do that, that’s what happens. You shoot a low percentage and you get killed.”
VCU finished with its lowest scoring output of the season by far, falling by a lopsided final of 64-46 in South Beach. Allie-Cox led the way with 10 points.
“We were terrible,” Wade said. “We were soft. We were weak with the ball. Just embarrassing. I didn’t have us ready to go. Worst we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
The Rams handled the Princeton University Tigers on Tuesday night in a dramatic 81-70 win that improved them to 6-1 on the young season at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.
Princeton played a 1-3-1 zone that VCU head coach Will Wade admitted the Rams did not prepare for and had to adjust to on the fly.
The Tigers’ defensive approach, infamous spacing, ball movement and cutting action of the “Princeton Offense” left the Rams flat, and the boys quickly found themselves in a 16-0 hole a mere six minutes into the game.
“I told our guy before the game, we could make plays or make excuses,” Wade said. “We had enough guys step up and make plays.”
After the early deficit, VCU had to dig deep to pull off an affair featuring seven lead changes in the second half after none in the first.
Senior starting point guard JeQuan Lewis put the Rams on the board with 14:12 to play in the first half by sinking a pair of free throws after he was fouled on a drive through the lane in transition.
After a subsequent steal in the backcourt, Lewis found freshman guard De’Riante Jenkins, who sunk a three from the wing and cut the Tigers’ lead to 11.
“They had us on our heels,” Lewis said. “We did a good job of calming down and responding.”
Lewis, who finished with 25 points and a career-high 12 assists, was the calming presence for VCU in an otherwise frenetic beginning game.
Coach Wade leaned hard on Lewis, playing him for more than 35 minutes on Tuesday night, partially because the Rams were missing their other primary ball handler, junior guard Jonathan Williams due to illness.
“We’ve been riding him like a rented mule,” Wade said of the starting point guard who has played more than 30 minutes the last four consecutive games.“He’s been phenomenal. We needed our seniors to step up and they really came through.”
Jenkins and senior forward Mo Alie-Cox punctuated the first half comeback and blew the top off the Siegel Center with back-to-back steals and acrobatic dunks with 2:04 left in the period.
The sequence cut the Princeton lead to 37-32. Lewis then completed the resurgence, knotting the score at 39-39 with a three from the wing and another pair of free throws just before the half.
“We have a very experienced team,” Alie-Cox said. “We’d been in that position before and we knew we just had to respond. Once we tied it up at halftime, we went into the locker room upbeat and really figured out what we needed to do.”
VCU sped up the game in the second half and forced the Tigers to play at their pace.
Just after the first minute of the half, Alie-Cox emphatically rejected Princeton in the lane and created an offensive opportunity in transition. Senior starting forward Jordan Burgess secured the rebound and made an outlet pass to Lewis, who in turn found senior starting guard Doug Brooks in the corner for a three-pointer.
The basket secured the Rams’ first lead of the night, 44-41.
After that, Princeton kept pace until a 7-0 VCU run with four minutes left secured the Black and Gold’s control of the game.
With the score tied at 64 and 4:25 on the clock, Lewis again found Burgess for a corner three in transition after Princeton missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
The Tigers called a timeout, but Lewis penetrated the lane and collapsed the Princeton defense when play resumed. Lewis got clogged up in the crowded paint, but freshman guard Samir Doughty, wide open at the top of the key, made eye contact with Lewis, who was under the basket.
Lewis found Doughty, whose three gave VCU a commanding six-point lead they would not look back from.
“Wow, what a game. I’m lost for words, and that’s rare with me,” Wade said. “I’m really proud of all our guys. We rallied. It wasn’t easy, but we rallied. They’re as good as advertised. We’ll look back in a couple months and be really glad we have that one.”
VCU finished 81-70 over the Tigers to conclude a fast-paced, intense game at the Siegel Center and up their record to 6-1.
“Really fun place to play, great environment,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson. “That’s a really good team right there, maybe the best on our schedule, and they made some really great plays down the stretch.”
Zach is a junior pursuing a dual degree in print journalism and English. A proud Norfolk-ian, he enjoys long walks on the beach, English literature of the romantic period and anything pertaining to Harry Potter or baseball. Zach an avid Red Sox and Patriots fan who can usually be found working at the Student Media Center or running along the James.
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