The Rams demonstrated one thing in this contest that should set the stage for the season to come: they are a tenacious, ball-hawking, tough basketball team that can adapt to many styles of play.
The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams’ 85-76 victory was one of the more bruising affairs Rams fans can expect to see this season. Joey Rodriguez had his nose blooded by an errant elbow; Larry Sanders went down with an undisclosed injury to his left leg while banging in the post with 14 minutes left in the second half; T.J. Gwynn was momentarily hobbled by a physical tie-up moments later. The Rams demonstrated one thing in this contest that should set the stage for the season to come: they are a tenacious, ball-hawking, tough basketball team that can adapt to many styles of play.
The first half was called loosely by the officiating unit, and the Rams seemed to thrive on the hectic style of play. They kept Nevada’s transition game in check, always having a man back deep any time the Wolf Pack tried to run and create numbers on the break. VCU hit 40% of its first-half shots and used balancing scoring to hold a 35-28 lead at the break (Sanders was the high man with nine). They then countered the more tightly whistled second half by making just enough free throws to keep the game out of reach, while continuing to play smothering man-to-man defense that caused the Wolf Pack to rely exclusively on its best player, Luke Babbitt.
“I’m proud of the way our guys buckled down on the defensive side and limited their explosive offense,” Rams coach Shaka Smart said.
VCU was coming into this game facing a Nevada Wolf Pack team that had just scored 112 points in a victory over Houston. The Rams held the ‘Pack to 26.8% shooting in the first half, and continued to play stifling full-court defense in half number two. The reason this game wasn’t a blowout in the Rams’ favor is the play of preseason Western Athletic Conference player of the year Babbitt, who recovered from a 2-11 shooting first half to score 21 second-half points and single-handedly keep Nevada close. The Rams, however, had an answer for each impressive Babbitt foray to the hoop, with Larry Sanders and Bradford Burgess delivering back-to-back dunks with 16 minutes left to keep the momentum in VCU’s favor.
The other key was keeping Sanders out of foul trouble. Sanders’s problems with fouls was well-documented coming into the contest, as he had had at least four fouls in each contest this year. In this game, Sanders didn’t collect his first foul until 17:13 remained in the second half and finished with three. VCU kept him off the line on the majority of its offensive free throws, a move that seemed to be geared towards keeping Sanders on the floor as much as possible. His disruptive presence in the paint helped to keep Nevada reliant on Babbitt and others’ midrange jump shots throughout the game. Even when Sanders was out for the three-minute stretch early in the second half the Rams continued to keep Nevada from dominating the paint, with their wing players helping to clog the lane.
With the game a tight seven points with one minute left, reserve Ed Nixon hit a dagger of a three-pointer that cemented the game. “Ed has been outstanding for us,” Smart said. “He’s done a great job on both sides of the court.”
Sanders led the way for VCU statistically with 17 points and 14 rebounds (his 15th career double double) to go along with five blocked shots. Nixon matched Sanders with 17 points, a career-high, including 2-3 from three-point range. Burgess also was in double figures with 12.
Despite VCU’s solid effort and victory over a talented team, Smart, like any good coach, found something the team can improve on for the next game. “We have to sure up our offensive rebounding, but this game couldn’t have come at a better time for us with Rhode Island coming in here next. They hurt us on the boards last year, so that’s definitely something we’re going to focus on heading into next week.”
For now, though, the Rams and their coach can be pleased with the fact that their adaptability allowed for a solid early-season victory.