Dominating performance by sophomore forward Larry Sanders delivers Rams to CAA Title and NCAA Tournament.
Just over four minutes into the second half of Monday night’s CAA Championship game between the VCU Rams and George Mason University Patriots, the GMU band started playing 1980s Bon Jovi power ballad, Livin’ on a Prayer. The song choice was strangely (and intentionally?) ironic, describing Mason’s position perfectly. At that point the Patriots trailed the Rams 37-19 Rams and were being outplayed on both ends. VCU had just scored the first seven points of the second half (all coming off assists from senior guard and two-time league MVP, Eric Maynor). All the Patriots had left were prayers and even those didn’t seem very hopeful.
By the time the Mason band launched into Don’t Stop Believing a few minutes later, it was too late. All 11,000 fans at the Richmond Coliseum (even the Patriots’ fans) already had stopped believing. The #1 seeded VCU Rams–paced by typically solid play from Maynor and a career-defining performance from sophomore forward Larry Sanders–were simply too much.
George Mason never closed the gap to single digits allowing the Rams to cruise to their second CAA Championship in the last three years, as they won in blowout fashion, 71-50. The win earned VCU an automatic invite to the Big Dance–the NCAA tournament–which begins Thursday, March 19th.
It was the type of game that all season we’ve been saying VCU’s is capable of, if all the pieces could just come together, if every player would do his part. On Monday, the most important player was Sanders. He was an absolute monster, nearly notching a triple double. His final stat line read: 18 points, 20(!) rebounds, 7 blocks. The rebound and block totals were both CAA championship game records. He looked like the best player on the floor, not an easy feat when Maynor’s own your team. On offense Sanders was aggressive from the opening tip (which he won, thank you very much), combining off-the-glass jumpers with punctuation mark dunks. On defense Sanders and his go-go-gadget arms frustrated the Patriots all game long, changing shots when they weren’t swatting them away. GMU ended shooting a dismal 30% from the floor. Cam Long–arguably the best Patriot player, who torched the Rams for 24 points in their only other meeting this season–was particularly abysmal, shooting just 2-13 on the night.
The Rams started quickly. Before the opening tip, Maynor showed uncharacteristic emotion, urging the crowd into the game early. Then he assisted on VCU’s first 3 buckets (from three different players) posting the Rams to a 7-2 lead. It was a lead they would never relinquish. Maynor didn’t attempt a shot (a miss) until 8 minutes into the game. But his next shot (a layup off a steal) was true. He followed that with a filthy crossover move and a teardrop in the lane. On the next possession he calmly drained a step back three, before smiling at the GMU bench. Timeout Patriots. VCU leads 18-9.
But this game wasn’t like so many other Rams’ games this year when they were dependent on Maynor’s steadying hand and heroic efforts. Sure, he ended with a game high 25 points and 8 assists. He was just doing his part. VCU’s performance was best represented by the energetic (if not somewhat self-indulgent) VCU pep band director who apparently goes by the moniker the Total Package and who saw more costume changes (at least 7 by my unofficial count) than a Britney Spears concert. VCU was the total package: superb guard play from Maynor, a dominating instead effort from Sanders, swarming team defense, and the solid contribution of role players. That package equals success come tournament time. And should the Rams be able to put that package together again, they just might surprise a higher seed (or two) next weekend during the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Needless to say, RVA will look with greater interest at the tournament bracket when it’s released on Sunday evening, eager to see against whom and where the Rams will match up. And don’t be surprised if, over the next ten days, you hear people around the city humming a certain Journey power ballad on behalf of the VCU men’s basketball team:
Don’t stop believin
Hold on to the feelin. . . .
It goes on and on and on and on
Now I know no one likes a know-it-all (let alone four know-it-alls), but a few observations from Monday night’s game in light of the RVANews CAA Tourney preview:
- The stars showed up. And on this night, at least, there were 2 stars: Sanders and Maynor (in that order).
- As becomes tournament action, the refs swallowed their whistles. And Sanders didn’t get into foul trouble. In fact, the most important stat in his impressive first half stat line (8 points, 12 boards, 4 blocks) was this one: 0 fouls.
- The role players stepped up big. Freshman Bradford Burgess knocked down two three-pointers in the first half as the Rams extended their lead. Forward TJ Gwynn, whose been coming on of late, was an athletic spark at both ends, earning crucial second half minutes instead of the White Russian, because of his ability to defend multiple positions and because of his ball-handling prowess (snicker).
- And finally, home crowd advantage. VCU’s Spring Break and the weather (remember last Monday?) didn’t diminish the size or enthusiasm of the Richmond area crowd. Ram fans owned the Coliseum, except for 3 quiet, rather dejected sections in the southwest corner.