Rams down the Monarchs in the snow

Virginia Commonwealth University entered Saturday afternoon’s game versus rival Old Dominion in the midst of yet another winter storm in Richmond. Despite adverse factors, the Rams came through with an important victory over their in-state rivals 70-58.

Virginia Commonwealth University entered Saturday afternoon’s game versus rival Old Dominion in the midst of yet another winter storm in Richmond. They were coming in facing the third-ranked defensive team in the country, and the leading team in the Colonial Athletic Association in rebound margin. ODU was riding a streak of nine wins in its last ten games. On top of that, superstar forward/center Larry Sanders was on the bench to start the contest due to disciplinary reasons imposed by head coach Shaka Smart.

Despite these adverse factors, the Rams came through with an important victory over their in-state rivals 70-58. VCU earned this hard-fought victory by eschewing their normal fast-break, three-point-shooting style and battling hard in the paint. It didn’t hurt that they received strong performances from their supporting cast and a dominating second half from Sanders. Sanders finished with 14 points, 11 in the second half, and 12 rebounds. The Rams were led in scoring by Bradford Burgess with 16 points, a constant offensive threat in a game of up-and-down’s for VCU.

The Rams actually stole pages from the Monarchs’ playbook, turning ODU over consistently in the second half to stretch the lead. The Rams trailed by two at the half and were arguably only in the game due to the performance of senior Kirill Pishchalnikov, the spot starter in light of Sanders’ absence. Pishchalnikov led the Rams with eight first-half points and continued to create havoc in the paint in the second half, not only with his scoring but also with the overall energy he provided in keeping balls alive on the glass and creating second-chance opportunities. Pishchalnikov finished with a season-high 14 points. Point man Joey Rodriguez again showed why his playmaking ability is invaluable to this team, continually drawing defenders as he distributed to the open man on valuable possessions late in the game and finished with eight assists.

Early on, it looked as if the size of the Monarchs could match the interior presence of Pishchalnikov and fellow post starter Jamie Skeen. Monarchs forward Frank Hassell score eight early points, the majority of them on second-chance opportunities as the 6’10” Sanders sat idly on the bench. However, when Sanders entered it immediately affected the Monarchs ability to score down low, and the much-anticipated matchup between Sanders and ODU big man Gerald Lee (season average prior to the contest: 14 points per game) never really materialized. Hassell drew his second foul with 12:18 left in the first half on Sanders put him on the bench for the remainder of the half, and VCU overcame an early 18-9 deficit to climb right back into the game, going into the half down by two.

The Rams showed a remarkable ability to adapt to the slow-it-down style, taking fastbreak opportunities when they presented themselves but being patient in the half court as well. The Rams didn’t receive any three-point contributions from guard Brandon Rozzell, who entered the game shooting 45.6% from beyond the arc, but adapted by using Pishchalnikov and Sanders’ dominance in the post in the second half to work on controlling the paint.

The Rams’ defense, other than the contribution from Pishchalnikov, was perhaps the difference in this game. They turned the Monarchs over 16 times, reversing the fortunes on a team lauded for its defensive prowess thus far this season. In doing so, they picked up a game on ODU in the conference standings with a chance to make more moves as they match up against George Mason on the road on Tuesday. The Rams exhibited the ability to adapt to a different style and the early absence of their star on Saturday, traits that can only benefit them as a team as they prepare for the final stretch in conference play.

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Lathan Wells

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