The story coming in would be how the Dragons, led by a freshman at point guard in Frantz Massenat, would handle the ferocity of the Rams defensive schemes. For VCU, it would be how they could contend with the size advantage of their conference foe, one of the top rebounding teams in the nation.
The Virginia Commonwealth Rams men’s basketball team likes to force an uptempo game with stifling, pressing defense that it can convert into easy points. It also came into Wednesday night’s game against the Drexel Dragons shooting a torrid 37% from three for the season. Neither attribute was consistently present in the matchup, but they emerged at the right time as the Rams staged a comeback 52-48 win over their conference rival to secure their 18th consecutive win at home.
The story coming in would be how the Dragons, led by a freshman at point guard in Frantz Massenat, would handle the ferocity of the Rams defensive schemes. For VCU, it would be how they could contend with the size advantage of their conference foe, one of the top rebounding teams in the nation. Each team entered 1-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association, with Drexel 9-3 overall and VCU coming in at 9-5.
Early on, it appeared Drexel’s ability to clog the paint and force tough, contested shots would push them out well in front. The three-pointers weren’t falling early for the Rams, and leading scorer and rebounder Jamie Skeen left before the first four-minute media timeout with two early fouls fighting for position inside. Luckily for VCU, Drexel’s preferred halfcourt tempo kept them from building a larger lead. The game was in Drexel’s favor at only 13-9 with almost half of the first stanza complete. VCU continually found itself driving into a wall of big-bodied Drexel post players, and often threw up ill- advised forays into the lane or settled for heavily contested three’s. It also didn’t help that the Dragons lived up to their billing early, controlling the boards and earning multiple shots with work on the offensive glass. VCU head coach Shaka Smart acknowledged this by saying, “We knew coming in that they were animals on the boards.”
For the first ten minutes of half number two, it was more of the same for the Rams: quick, ill-advised jumpers and the inability to compete inside. However, right around the midway point something changed in the Rams’ favor: turnovers. It started with a Joey Rodriguez steal that was eventually converted into a Bradford Burgess lay-in at the 10:22 mark that brought VCU within four at 38-34. That was followed by a Drexel shot clock violation. After a fruitless offensive possession, VCU’s Rob Brandenberg then converted another steal into a putback to bring the Rams within two. Then, after yet another Drexel turnover, Brandon Rozzell (who along with Burgess led the Rams with 11 points) gave his team the lead for the first time since the 1:27 mark of the first half with a three-pointer from the top of the key. The game stayed close from that point on, with VCU still firing up some errant deep three’s and the Dragons continuing to struggle attacking the Rams’ trapping defense. With 3:30 left, Samme Givens’ two free throws gave Drexel a four-point lead that seemed significant when Rozzell’s subsequent three-point attempt was blocked. However, trailing by three with a little over a minute left, Rozzell atoned for the errant try and stole the ball, racing in for a layup while drawing a foul. He converted the free throw to tie the game at 44.
After Drexel’s Chris Fouch hit two free throws to again give the Dragons the lead with less than a minute remaining, Rodriguez hit a huge three-pointer off a long dish from Rozzell to give the Rams a one-point advantage at 47-46 with 46 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession for Drexel, Fauch had his three-point attempt blocked. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint was livid at the lack of what he perceived as excessive defensive contact on the shot, and his tirade drew him an immediate ejection from the officials.
The ejection handed the Rams four free throws, which Rodriguez calmly sank one after another. Jamie Skeen hit 1-2 on the foul he drew on the ensuing scrum from Fauch’s miss to put the lead at 52-46 and effectively end the Dragons’ hopes with a mere 13 seconds left.
In the end, the defensive intensity of the Rams kicked in just in time. “That’s the best defensive effort we have shown since I’ve been here,” Smart stated. “On a night where we didn’t shoot the ball well and got outrebounded by 17, our guys locked in and focused on the things we could control. It was a tremendous effort by this group of young men.” Despite finishing 5-23 from the three-point line and only shooting 29.5% overall, the Rams’ suffocating defense caused 23 Drexel turnovers that ultimately proved to be the difference-maker.
A terribly ill-fated ejection of the opposing coach didn’t hurt, either.