The “cross-town rivalry” didn’t get any less tense at the Robins Center this weekend, and Aaron Williams can’t wait for the plot to continue to thicken.
Photo by Will Weaver
Any concern that the VCU-Richmond rivalry would lose intensity after the departure of Coach Shaka Smart can be thoroughly dismissed. VCU inched past Richmond 94-89 in overtime in the Robins Center Saturday afternoon in a game full of big-time plays, intensity, and even a dash of controversy.
With 1:40 remaining in regulation, Richmond owned a four-point lead, the basketball, and momentum. It looked like VCU was going to make the seven mile trip across town empty handed–once again. But a series of dramatic and improbable events carried the Rams to their eighth straight victory.
First, JeQuan Lewis simply took the ball from ShawnDre’ Jones at mid-court and laid the ball up to cut the deficit to two points. On the next possession, Coach Will Wade stormed several feet into the court and confusion ensued. Richmond had six players on the hardwood, resulting in a Melvin Johnson free-throw to cut the deficit to one point.
After a little back and forth, Melvin Johnson assisted on a Justin Tillman dunk to tie the game with 35 seconds remaining. But Richmond’s high-octane offense still had ball. ShawnDre’ Jones, who finished with 26 points and six assists, drove to the rim but Mo Alie-Cox picked up his fifth and most important block of the night. Overtime.
VCU lost in overtime in the Robins Center in 2013 and in double-overtime in the Robins Center last season, so when Jones immediately scored in overtime on Saturday the nerves of the collective Black & Gold ached a little harder. But then something uncommon for VCU happened–their free-throw shooting won a game. Richmond went 1-of-5 from the charity stripe while VCU finished a perfect 6-of-6 to take a three point lead.
Richmond had three seconds and a heave to tie it on the final possession, but Justin Tillman playing the role of mad man to the max defended the inbound pass and Mo Alie-Cox intercepted the ball and dunked it as time expired. It was his second game-altering defensive play at the buzzer of the night.
From the Siegel Center and Robins Center to the sidelines of the Barclay’s Center to the dais at the Annual Coaches Cook-off, Richmond’s Coach Mooney and VCU’s Coach Smart always had an intense rivalry that boiled over in moments of emotion but would be cordial even seconds later. Early in Saturday’s game, Richmond students chanted “Where’s Shaka?” By the end of the game, I don’t think anyone cared.
Rivalries are strengthened by history. By mutual respect. By personalities. Coach Wade is holding up his end of the bargain.
As if the six players on the court technical wasn’t controversial enough1, Saturday’s tension went to 11 when Coach Mooney snubbed Coach Wade during the handshake line. The video is incontrovertible, but Mooney was quick to not make a big deal about it. “I know Will was celebrating the game. I thought he was still celebrating the game, and I went by and just tapped him and said , ‘Congratulations’.” Snub or inconvenience, these two will prowl the same sideline in about a month, and if we’re all lucky again, in Brooklyn.
The game was an exemplar of Will Wade’s coaching style. VCU’s young coach is more willing than his predecessor to totally transform his strategy from night to night and possession to possession. Against Fordham on Wednesday, he slimmed the playbook to four plays from a volume of more than 300. Three things stood out on Saturday.
First, VCU used more 2-3 matchup zone than in any other game this season. The defense wasn’t great from either team. VCU was able to get to the rim at will and Richmond’s ShawnDre’ Jones finished with 26 points, TJ Cline added 22, and Terry Allen scored 18 points. But the Rams’ zone was the most resistant defense of the night and VCU held one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the country to a 3-of-18 performance from beyond the arc.
Small-ball is central to HAVOC! old and new, but with Jordan Burgess out with a broken finger, the Rams have been forced to play more traditional lineups. Against Richmond, Wade played Korey Billbury and Doug Brooks at the four for extended minutes for the first time all season so the Rams could go small again. This enabled the perimeter trio of Lewis, Johnson, and Billbury to finally play to its potential. The three combined for 66 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, and six steals. This trio has been reason #1 to be bullish about VCU. Saturday is a promising sign.
Most importantly, VCU used Jonathan Williams and Melvin Johnson as point guards in order to move JeQuan Lewis off of the ball. Lewis thrived. He finished with a career-high 29 points on a mix of dizzying drives and catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Richmond used length to take away Melvin Johnson’s 3-pointers, but he responded with six assists and a knack for making the extra pass.
Coach Wade has shown a willingness to mix things up. At worst, it’s interesting. At best, it gives VCU the edge in brutal conference road games with outcomes as unknown as coin flips. The Rams are now in sole possession of first place at 5-0 and return home for the next two games. Pay close attention, because Coach Wade is bound to have a few tricks up his sleeve.
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The addition of VCU to the Atlantic 10 sparked the golden age of RVA basketball. It was the perfect response to Richmond’s trip to the 2011 Sweet Sixteen and VCU’s journey to the 2011 Final Four. Saturday was the start of another brilliant chapter. I can’t wait to see what twists and turns remain between these two in the 2016 season, and I certainly hope this chapter lasts until Brooklyn.
- Coach Mooney took full responsibility after the game, but the refs have some responsibility to count the players before the ball is in play. ↩