Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
As he was driving to the Basketball Development Center on Tuesday, coach Mike Rhoades felt his team was going to “figure it out” against Saint Louis later that night, he said. His gut feeling was confirmed as men’s basketball won the game 67-65.
The team was short of the normal selection of guards heading into the contest at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, losing leading scorer sophomore Bones Hyland to a foot sprain and junior KeShawn Curry for personal reasons, for the night.
They also were coming off a loss to George Mason on Saturday that ended their six-game winning streak.
“I was really excited today going through the day seeing how our guys are going to play, ” Rhoades said. “I just felt really good and excited to watch these guys step up and try to beat Saint Louis.”
The team played all four of its freshmen in the game. Guard Ace Baldwin played all 40 minutes, and forward Jamir Watkins earned his first career start. Forward Mikeal Brown-Jones and guard Josh Banks each played 18 or more minutes.
“I thought Ace — this was his best game in a VCU uniform,” Rhoades said. “Just quarterbacking his team and being an extension of the coaching staff.”
Baldwin finished with 15 points and seven assists.
Junior forward Vince Williams said the win was earned partly by the younger players matching the level of an older team.
“Saint Louis is a much older team too, so our young guys really played up to their ability,” Williams said.
The Rams jumped on an early 6-0 run to give the black and gold a 5-point lead. Sophomore forward Hason Ward and senior forward Levi Stockard did most of the damage inside, combining for 4 points on back-to-back baskets in the paint.
Saint Louis only made one of its first five shots from the field to start; a 3-pointer. The Billikens turned the ball over three times in the first four minutes.
The Billikens answered the Ram run with a 6-0 run of their own to take a single-point lead. Watkins halted the run with a 3-pointer from the left wing.
VCU held Saint Louis without a point for two minutes midway through the first half and took advantage of it. The black and gold’s 5-0 run was powered by a Williams 3-pointer.
The Rams’ defense stood tall to close the first half, holding the Billikens without a point for just under the final three minutes. In the final five minutes of the period, Saint Louis only managed four field goal attempts, making two.
The black and gold started the second half similar to the first, going on a 6-0 run. Watkins made three free throws, and Williams knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing.
Saint Louis answered the VCU run with a 13-0 burst to take a 5-point lead. The Rams were held scoreless for three and a half minutes during the point outburst. Williams ended the run with a 3-pointer from the left wing.
“He was very confident today when he was shooting the ball,” Rhoades said of Williams. “Even when he missed, it looked really good.”
Williams finished the night with a team-high 16 points, including four 3-pointers.
For most of the second half, the teams exchanged baskets; when it seemed like either team had something going, the other was able to limit the damage and level the game.
“We didn’t learn anything, we just stayed together,” Williams said of the team’s performance. “If we stay together, honestly, nobody can compete with us.”
Ward blocked Saint Louis’ Jordan Goodwin’s 3-point attempt with under 30 seconds to play. The ball found its way to Baldwin, who drove to basket and was fouled with less than five seconds to go. Baldwin made both free throws to take the lead.
“I’m not going to lie,” Baldwin said, “I feel as though those moments are really regular and I’m really built for this moment.”
The Rams close the regular season at Davidson on Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.