Sob, it’s over. Here’s how it went down, and why we can really celebrate, in a way.
Photo by Will Weaver
VCU’s season ended Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City in an 85-81 NCAA Tournament heartbreaker to Oklahoma, after a furious double-digit comeback. In many ways, the game was a microcosm of the season.
Just like VCU’s slow 5-5 start in November and December, the Rams trailed 21-7 after the opening minutes and memories of Michigan in 2013 haunted hopes of any comeback. VCU looked outmanned in every facet of the game. The Sooners turned the paint into a no-fly zone, their transition defense was dominant, and they threw up an alley-oop and a couple of impressive dunks.
But then an unlikely lineup, including the fearless Doug Brooks and the almost forgotten Michael Gilmore, sparked the Rams. Brooks hit two 3-pointers and went after Buddy Hield–the favorite for national player of the year. Brooks hadn’t hit a 3-pointer since February 19th and Sunday was his best game since hitting four 3-pointers and defending now NBA star D’Angelo Russell in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Michael Gilmore was even better. He slammed an early alley-oop from JeQuan Lewis and started grabbing rebounds when the rest of VCU couldn’t even buy a board. The surprise lineup cut the lead to five points, but Mo Alie-Cox spent too much of the first half on the bench with one foul and Oklahoma entered the locker room with a 13-point lead. But like the December loss to Cincinnati, the Rams’ process looked promising but they weren’t seeing the results yet.
In the second half, the Rams put together a comeback that was the quintessence of VCU–despite the outcome. They put up 50 fearless points after intermission and played truly inspired basketball. Returning to the lineup, Alie-Cox went to work with a nimble drive turned thunderous dunk.
Michael Gilmore hit two 3-pointers and continued skying for improbable rebounds. He had played 14 minutes in VCU’s last ten games and hadn’t scored since February 6th but finished with 12 points (2-2 2PFG, 2-2 3PFG, 2-2 FT) and eight rebounds in 20 minutes.
Senior Melvin Johnson entered Sunday having made just five of his last 38 3-point attempts (.132). In the second half he caught fire and hit four 3-pointers en route to 23 points. The Rams were running on all cylinders.
Gilmore, Alie-Cox, and Johnson all made a difference on the margin, but VCU’s anchor this entire past weekend was JeQuan Lewis. Confirming what was obvious early in the season, the team goes as he goes. He played all 40 minutes on Sunday and finished with 22 points (7-10 2PFG, 2-5 3PFG, 2-2 FT), nine assists, four rebounds, two steals, and five turnovers. He finished the weekend with 43 points (11-16 2PFG, 5-10 3PFG, 6-6 FT), 11 rebounds, 17 assists, four steals, and nine turnovers and only spent four minutes on the bench.
With 8:10 remaining, VCU took a 65-63 lead on Gilmore free-throws. But Buddy Hield, who finished with 36 points, responded with a 3-pointer. The Rams responded as well, and a JeQuan Lewis steal with 4:24 remaining turned into a Mo Alie-Cox and-1–but it was waived off and called a travel. On the next possession a soft Jordan Burgess foul on Hield solidified a five point swing and crushed the Rams’ momentum. The Rams would cut it to three, but Oklahoma was able to hold off the comeback and win 85-81.
The game ended the way the season ended–with a profound sense of outperforming expectations and remarkable hope for next season. Finishing 25-11, winning a game in the NCAA Tournament, and going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams and one of the best players in the country would have been an accomplishment for any VCU team. But this year was a special journey of outpacing expectations.
The Rams were picked to finish 5th in the Atlantic 10 and the pick wasn’t without cause. VCU lost its star coach, Briante Weber, Treveon Graham, its best prospect in Terry Larrier, and an exciting recruiting class, including #58 Tevin Mack (Texas), #97 Kenny Williams (UNC), and #166 Jordan Murphy (Minnesota).
When Will Wade announced that “HAVOC still lives here,” he inherited a depleted roster. Even Justin Tillman had announced his intentions to leave VCU. The 33-year-old coach retained Tillman and quickly added Korey Billbury and Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed. The team struggled at first, but his deliberate inside-out offense showed promise, and the Rams improved on defense every week even as they forced fewer and fewer turnovers. Sunday they finished the season as co-A10 champs and added a much-needed victory in the NCAA Tournament with Friday’s win over Oregon State.
The Rams lose sharp-shooter Melvin Johnson and graduate transfer do-everything man Korey Billbury, but return a talented team with loads of potential. This season was Will Wade’s overnight miracle–his history paper that earns an A after one all-nighter. Next season, he will see the residuals of his day-to-day work. His obsession with details means the little things will compound over time into something even greater.
Outpacing expectations but still having justified hope for the future is a luxury in sports. VCU has done an exceptional job creating a program that is so much bigger than any one piece, and it seems to just chug along. Next year, Wade will have to deal with the burden of expectations, but this season he proved himself capable and then some. The long wait to November begins with a distinct feeling of satisfaction and an insatiable hunger for more.
- VCU and Kansas are the only two teams to win 24 games each of the last ten seasons
- The Rams have made the NCAA Tournament eight of the last 10 seasons and have won nine games over that stretch (Duke, USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, Kansas, Wichita State, Akron, Oregon State).
- VCU put up the 7th most efficient game of the season against Oklahoma. That’s impressive considering the Big 12 boats the 2nd, 10th, 13th, 31st, 35th, and 44th most efficient offenses in the country (OK is 14th).
- Melvin Johnson finished the season with 110 3-pointers, which is tied for 8th nationally and is the second best season in VCU history.
- Briante Weber led the nation in steal percentage for four consecutive seasons–something truly dominant according to KenPom. Doug Brooks finished the season ranked #1 nationally in steal percentage, which means a VCU player has dominated that stat for five consecutive seasons.