Larry Sanders exploded all over the Siegal Center on Saturday night, dominating the defensive-minded Hampton Pirates with his second double-double of the season in a 59-54 VCU win. Sanders obliterated his previous career highs with 19 rebounds and 21 points in front of an amped-up 7,405 Ram fans.
Early in the first half of Saturday night’s men’s basketball game between VCU and Hampton, a particularly loud member of the near-sellout crowd managed to be heard above the buzz in the Siegal center. The fan doing the yelling was right behind me, and from my courtside vantage point 6’10” sophomore phenom Larry Sanders was directly in front of me. So I can only assume that the big man heard the shouts.
“Stay big, Larry! Put it down his throat, Larry!”
And big he stayed. Larry Sanders exploded all over the Siegal Center on Saturday night, dominating the defensive-minded Hampton Pirates with his second double-double of the season in a 59-54 VCU win. Sanders obliterated his previous career highs with 19 rebounds and 21 points in front of an amped-up 7,405 Ram fans. And it’s a good thing he did, because the rest of the Rams (senior standout Eric Maynor aside) weren’t getting much done, particularly on the offensive end of the court.
The key moment came with the game still in doubt late in the second half. After a 10-5 run to give the Rams a 7-point edge at the intermission, Hampton had shaved the lead to 1 point with 2:53 remaining. The fear that the Rams could be upset by a scrappy MEAC team that hit their 3-pointers had become almost tactile. Another Ram shot clanked off the rim. Then, in the sort of athletic play that makes you laugh because it’s so impossible, Sanders plucked the skying rebound out of the stratosphere with one six-foot arm and jammed in into the basket on his way back to earth, unleashing an absolute wall of sound from the Ram crowd.
The visibly shaken Hampton Pirates turned the ball over on the ensuing possession, and it was none other than Larry Sanders who converted the old-fashioned 3-point play to give VCU a 6 point lead with 1:42 to go and effectively put the game out of Hampton’s reach.
It was a game of shifting strategies from both teams as the offenses started cold. With 3:50 remaining in the first half, the score remained 18-16, a pace that, if it had continued, would have led to a 45-40 Rams win. At that point in the game, both teams had combined to go 4 of 24 from deep and both needed desperately to retool. It was clear that whoever’s Plan B worked the best would win the game.
Hampton coach Kevin Nickelberry’s adjustment was to mix bench players more heavily into the rotation than the cold starters. Four bench players exceeded 20 minutes of playing time: their top two rebounders (juniors Smalling and Freeman with 6 apiece) and top two scorers (freshman Tolson with 18 and junior Simpson with 16). Their 3-point shooting percentage went from 25% in the first half to 67% in the second, and it was this sudden surge from long range that powered the Pirates back into the contest.
In the VCU locker room, Coach Anthony Grant talked to the team at halftime about going 3 for 16 from downtown, but only taking 2 foul shots as a team in the entire first period. In the second half, the team started driving more into the lane, forsaking the wide open 3 to try to get a bunch more of those uncontested 1-point shots they give you for getting smacked around while you’re trying to shoot. This approach cut VCU’s made three-point shot total in the second half from 3 to 1, but it gave them 22 free throws instead of the paltry first-half total of 2. The poster child of this approach was Brandon Rozzel, who had 4 points in the first half off 7 shots, but who managed to drain all 6 of his free throws in the second half while only attempting (but missing) one field goal.
Bright spots like that are scant comfort when your team shot a poor 37% from the field in both halves. But it’s the VCU coaching job’s staff to stay focused and disappointed in the Ram’s poor all-around performance despite the win. It’s my job to notice special players doing special things. Here’s one more:
Early in the game, immediately after Larry Sanders was encouraged to stay big, Eric Maynor (dribbling at the top of the key) made eye contact with Sanders (standing near the left corner near the baseline), and flicked his (Maynor’s) eyes towards the basket. I saw it, Sanders saw it, but Sanders’s defender who had floated too far out to the perimeter had no idea what was about to happen to him.
Sanders instantly launched himself towards the basket and in two enormous strides was airborne. But Maynor had already floated the ball into the air. “No way Larry gets there in time,” I thought. Clearly, I haven’t been watching enough VCU basketball. Ten of Larry’s fingertips apprehended the ball from the heavens and slammed it home while (I swear) he was still on his way upwards. Seven thousand, five hundred and four fans went bonkers while I could only shake my head and laugh because, honestly, that’s impossible.