Rams lose the game and the conference lead heading into the second half of CAA play.
The stakes were high: 1st place in the CAA. A national television audience. The tie-breaker for the CAA tournament top seed.
VCU, burdened by foul trouble and poor shooting, could not rise to the occasion, and the Northeastern Huskies took the contest and the sole spot atop the CAA. The Rams kept it close in the end, where they were a “Maynor Miracle” away from sending the game to overtime.
VCU’s 27 team fouls and 38 percent shooting were the only stats that mattered. Three starters, Larry Sanders, Kirill Pishchalnikov, and Bradford Burgess, wound up watching the game from the bench all having fouled out.
VCU, coming off seven straight wins, now looks to regroup as it heads into the 2nd half of the conference season tied for second place in the CAA.
The game was televised on ESPNU, a rare opportunity for the Rams to get national exposure. The lead-in game of Miami v. NC State went to overtime, so viewers were unable to see the opening minutes of this contest. They should consider themselves lucky.
The Rams committed four fouls in the first minute and a half, which led to Sanders riding the pine and VCU fielding two freshmen in the biggest conference game of the year so far.
A timing error led to a stoppage in play, which allowed Coach Anthony Grant to hold a refresher course of defense, pantomiming positionings. It was a Kodak moment, but the drill was not effective and the Rams went on to put the Huskies in the bonus within the first nine minutes of the game.
The Huskies capitalized on their free-throws, shooting 9-10 in the first half. The Huskies’ size advantage allowed them get position inside to draw fouls and helped open up the perimeter, where they shot 60% from 3.
With the Rams in foul trouble, Grant turned to freshman big man Terrance Saintil and sophomores Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell. Nixon and Saintil would prove to be ineffective, but Rozzell stepped up, scoring 10 points in the first half.
The Rams found themselves down 17 points with 4:30 left in the first half, but then began to show signs of life. The Rams rallied behind a rare 5-point play, where Rozzell knocked down a 3, a foul underneath gave the Rams the ball, and Sanders’s athletic reverse dunk completed the play.
By the end of the half, the Rams clawed had their way back to within four.
The second half began as the first half started. The Huskies started out with a 15-3 run to take their lead back up to 16, and Sanders landed back on the bench. That would be the last time the Rams employed a lineup with 2 forwards; they managed the rest of the game with an undersized 4 guard set. Sanders’s foul trouble would once again haunt VCU, who are now 1-5 when Sanders fouls out.
The Rams’ celebrated full court press helped bring the game closer, netting 4 turnovers in the second half. All told, the Rams forced 12 turnovers in the 2nd half alone. The successful press set off VCU on an 11-2 run, narrowing the Huskies’ margin.
Senior Eric Maynor’s 16 2nd half points, combined with the Huskies focusing more on eating the clock than making good shots, helped bring the Rams back within 2 with 2 minutes left. The Rams would keep it close, but Maynor missed a long-distance 3 to tie the game with 20 seconds left, and the Rams were unable to force another turnover.
While a loss is always hard to swallow, Grant took advantage of several opportunities for a teaching moment with his young team. The 1st half defensive drill and instructions during several 2nd half official timeouts will pay dividends throughout the remainder of the season.
Rozzell was a bright spot, and he literally caught fire in the NBA Jam sense, hitting six straight buckets (four from behind the arc), scoring a career high 16 points. Look for Rozzell to play a bigger role in upcoming games.
VCU’s scrappy play may be rewarded more in the post-season than the regular season, where referees may be more lenient with the whistle. A skirmish on the court towards the end of the second half was ignited when Maynor drew a foul and landed hard, and his teammates were there protect their leader. Seeing the team rally together is a good sign, especially after the surprise departure of Lance Kearse from the team late last week, and Myk Brown leaving the team earlier in the year.
The buzz back in the media room and on media row was not centered only on VCU basketball, but drifted to VCU football. With U of R Stadium being vacated, and a new VCU president taking the helm, could VCU be on the path towards starting a football program?