Thai Wilson, Contributing writer
In the first round of the National Invitational Tournament, the VCU men’s basketball program defeated the Princeton Tigers 90-79 after their quarter-final exit in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament.
The Rams started off the first half with a three-pointer by senior guard KeShawn Curry. However, this would be followed up by a 9-0 run by the Tigers.
VCU head coach Mike Rhoades said he thought the team did a tremendous job at staying on their toes ready for the next play.
“I thought we had a great ‘next play’ mentality tonight, where they might have hit a three or a loose ball and they hit a three. We just moved on to the next play,” Rhoades said.
The black and gold came back with a 7-0 run of their own to help them secure a 10-9 lead over Princeton.
The lead would continue to change between the Tigers and Rams until there was eight minutes left in the half. The Rams would continue to lead the game until halftime with a score of 39-32. The black and gold were led by a 12 point first half performance by Curry.
Freshman guard Jayden Nunn said that during halftime, Rhoades reminded the team to maintain the momentum.
“He said to keep being aggressive. Try to get the lead up by more than seven points really. So just keep our foot on their neck,” Nunn said.
Sophomore guard Adrian “Ace” Baldwin Jr. said the team’s energetic first half performance was important for the win.
“We just wanted to keep staying aggressive and keep playing defense,” Baldwin said.
Rhoades also said he told the team during halftime he liked how the defense executed gameplans, but other areas needed to improve.
The Rams were also able to defend the three-point line efficiently during the first half, allowing the Tigers to only shoot 16.7% from behind the arc. Baldwin said getting into their rhythm helped the Rams win the game.
“It felt good once we started playing our style of play. Once we started playing our style of play, I felt like we were unbeatable. So if we just stick to that I think we will be great,” Baldwin said.
In the second half, the Tigers started to catch up on the offensive end, where they started hitting shots beyond the arc after their three-point percentage drought in the first half.
Despite this second half offensive push by the Tigers, the Rams continued to keep the lead because of transition basketball and huge momentum shifters, like a steal and slam by senior guard KeShawn Curry.
Late in the second half, Princeton started to ramp up its defense by switching into a 1-3-1 zone. This initially caused some turnovers that led to points for the Tigers.
The black and gold would turn the zone against them by passing more and being more aggressive in the paint, which led to a season high 56 points in the paint according to Statbroadcast.
“Just keep playing aggressive. They don’t want to foul, so let’s just keep playing aggressive,” Baldwin said.
Rams head coach Mike Rhoades commented that the Tiger’s 1-3-1 zone actually assisted the Rams in winning the game.
“Them going into it [1-3-1 zone] made us slow down a little bit and the clock kept running,” Rhoades said. “Them going to it actually helped us a little bit because it was running clock.”
The Tigers started fouling the Rams to force a last ditch effort at a comeback. However, the Rams went 100% from the free throw line in the last minute to seal the game with an ending score of 90-79.
“The confidence we can get today offensively of executing our plays, finishing at the rim and really sharing the ball without turning it over,” Rhoades said. “We scored 90 points on a good team today. That’s huge.”
Rhoades said he is happy to be able to keep coaching the team and is ready for whatever the future may bring.
“I don’t know how many more days we have together as this group, but I’ve had so much fun coaching these guys and there’s a lot of overachieving,” Rhoades said. “But there’s no reason why we can’t keep going.”
VCU will face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the second round of the NIT on either March 19 or 20 at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.