With another standout performance by CAA Player-of-the-Year in waiting, Eric Maynor, delivered a four point home win, 73-69, for the VCU Rams over the Akron University Zips Wednesday night.
An eight minute stretch of some of their best team play of the season to close out the first half combined with another standout performance by CAA Player-of-the-Year in waiting, Eric Maynor, delivered a four point home win, 73-69, for the VCU Rams over the Akron University Zips Wednesday night. Once again it was Eric Maynor who starred for the Rams, scoring a game-high 30 points, and steadying the team down the stretch as the Akron made a furious 2nd half push. The win moves VCU to 7-3 on the season, still undefeated at home, and 4-0 all-time against Akron.
The first half under eight minute timeout proved to be a turning point, as the Rams broke the huddle with a new level of enthusiasm and passion–particularly on the defensive end. A trapping defense (reminiscent of the Florida teams that Grant assistant coached under Billy Donovan) yielded steals (six for VCU in first half, against just one for AU) and easy buckets for VCU. The Rams ended the half on a 9-0 run, more than compensating for a mediocre start and extending to a sixteen point lead, 38-22.
Using a decisive first-half rebounding edge (21-9, 7 of which belonged to the White Russian) and outscoring Akron 24-6 in the paint, VCU looked very much in control by the break. With Maynor off to a slow start (missing his first four shots from the field), VCU looked elsewhere for early buckets. First year player and Benedictine product Bradford Burgress, fresh off his game-winning three-pointer on Saturday against cross town rival U of R, continued his solid play, logging 36 minutes of action and scoring eight points–all in the first half. He kept VCU close with Maynor scuffling early. Additionally freshman Terrance Saintil scored 4 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in just six minutes of action, making an immediate impact when he entered the game. The continued development of these freshmen may determine how far this VCU team can go.
In the first half, Akron was led by senior Nate Linhart, a lanky lefthanded forward who inexplicably kept hitting 6-foot tear-drop floaters just out of the reach of VCU defenders. They were the kind of shots that after the first one you say, “That was total luck. He’ll never make another one.” But after the third and fourth ones you say, “Okay. So that’s kinda his shot, I guess.” Linhart ended the half with ten points. Fortunately at halftime someone on the VCU coaching staff read the media guide and discovered that Linhart is left-handed; he only scored two more points.
For all that went right in the first half, much went wrong in the second. As Coach Grant (who, I should say, was once again dressed impeccably in a well-tailored gray suit, accented with a blue tie) put it laconically afterwards, “This game was the tale of two halves.” The Rams came out of the locker room flat and the Zips chipped away at the lead. Akron made a good second half adjustments by ramping up their defensive pressure and by pounding the ball inside to their front court players. Brothers Brett McKnight (12 points) and Chris McKnight (13 points) did most of the damage, scoring at will against an undermanned VCU interior. (Thankfully for VCU, third McKnight brother, Brian, is currently touring in support of his Christmas album and thus was unavailable for the game.)
While VCU owned the boards in the first half, Akron out-rebounded VCU 18-13 in the second. The Zips used a balanced scoring attack (with 5 players netting double digits) to cut into the VCU lead, which swelled as high as 17 points in the first minute of the second half, but dwindled to five on several occasions. Whenever the Zips got close, Maynor would take over, punishing Akron with hard drives to the basket. Linhart who looked so good in the first half for Akron, spent much of the second half, reading Maynor’s name from the back of his jersey after being worked over like an all-you-can buffet. The rest of the time Linhart spent with his palms face-up, arms extended, whining at the refs like a petulant child gradually realizing that he isn’t nearly as good at basketball as Eric Maynor.
But to their credit, the Zips never rolled over. Several times the Rams hit buckets or made plays that seemed to ice the game. For example, a great steal by Joey Rodriguez (who ended with 3 steals) led to a three-point play and a double digit VCU lead with less than four minutes to play. But back-to-back threes by Akron reduced the lead to five again. As the Gold Rush Dancers sauntered onto the floor for their final number with two minutes left, I found myself secretly wishing they’d dance to Back at One–thereby reducing the McKnight brothers to filial tears and effectively ending Akron’s chances.
In the last minute, a turnover by the otherwise unflappable Maynor, followed by another from Rodriguez, gave the Zips the ball, down just four, with 20 seconds left. But Akron misfired on its final shots and VCU escaped with the 73-69 win.
Despite the win, questions remain for the young Rams (can we call them ‘kids’?). A sluggish start, inconsistent play, and an inability to put the Zips away made this game closer (and tenser) than it needed to be. Once again Maynor’s ever-present, calm leadership made the difference, while other players contributed just enough for VCU.
- Stat of the game. Free throw discrepancy: VCU made 23-28 free throws (including 17-19 in the second half, almost half of their second half scoring). Akron shot 10-14 from the line. Maynor himself, for the Rams, was 12-14.
- Sophomore forward Larry Sanders continues to frustrate everyone, maybe especially Maynor. Sanders, despite being 6-10 with freakishly long arms and despite flashes of brilliant play (like his two-handed dunk first half dunk or his ‘out of nowhere’ block of an Akron three point attempt), vanishes during games for long stretches at a time as though he has entered some sort of basketball witness protection.
- Does anyone else think that Coach Grant has latent superpowers that he is honing to perfection? Like the power to pants a referee with his icy death-stare. After a string of bad calls in the first half and then a dubious technical foul call (on Grant) at a critical juncture in the second, he turned his death stare on the official in question for a good thirty seconds. If he can perfect these superpowers, it will make the Rams all the more dangerous come tournament time.
- It was hard not to notice the ineptitude of the VCU sweat-mopping crew. I’ve never seen kids this young mopping the lane. Surely child-labor laws apply at VCU. The situation was so bad that at one point during the game, CAA player of the year Maynor grabbed the giant Swiffer and mopped the floor himself. Later, one of the refs–not to be outdone by Maynor–manned the mop. And (I swear I’m not making this up) Gene Trani and Dougie Wilder grabbed the Squeegees late in the second half to help out as best they could.
- The lack of creativity of fans at the Stu (at least the ones behind me) was disheartening. Witty heckling is an art and a measure of the quality of a fan base. I heard a steady rotation of these three taunts: ‘You’re a loser!” “I’ve got your mom right here.” “You’re retarded.” Surely some enterprising fellow could make some money offering tutorials for less clever fans.
- For all of you eager readers waiting for a Gold Rush Dancer update, I have little to offer, except to say that I did spot my esteemed colleague, Matt White, at the game, apparently with a couple friends, disguised as a middle aged man and unfurling a gold banner that read “We <3 VCU dancers."
On Saturday night at 10 PM, the Rams take on the #4 Oklahoma Sooners (led by former VCU coach Jeff Capel), in Oklahoma City. You can catch the nationally televised game on the Deuce.
The next home game for VCU is Saturday, December 27th, at 7:30 PM against Hampton. You can catch a wrap of that game, right here, at Rvanews.