For many fans, getting to the Siegel Center for Saturday’s matchup between the VCU Rams and the William & Mary Tribe was a battle due to a Christmas Parade commanding much of Broad Street. The Rams dealt with similar adversity in the form of a plodding, half-court tempo dictated by the Tribe for most of Saturday’s matchup.
For many fans, getting to the Siegel Center for Saturday’s matchup between the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams (5-2 on the season coming in) and the William & Mary Tribe (3-5) was a battle due to a Christmas Parade commanding much of Broad Street. The Rams dealt with similar adversity in the form of a plodding, half-court tempo dictated by the Tribe for most of Saturday’s matchup.
VCU, coming in averaging just shy of 80 points a game on the season, could only muster 59 in this one. That proved to be enough, however, thanks to a defense that consistently turned William & Mary turnovers into points and refused to let one player beat them. Quinn McDowell scored 22 points for William & Mary, but the Tribe had few other consistent offensive threats and fell 59-55 to VCU despite leading by as many as 11 in the first half.
In that first session, the Rams could not penetrate the sagging zone defense of William & Mary and thus relied on the bulk of their points from the perimeter. It didn’t help that McDowell hit his first four shots and had his season average for points (14) by halftime. The Tribe also consistently milked the majority of the 35-second shot clock before drawing fouls, allowing them to earn points consistently from the line while also keeping the tempo slow.
VCU, which went into the half trailing by three, saw the Tribe extend their lead early in half number two. But McDowell’s foul trouble placed him on the bench for crucial stretches of the second half and allowed VCU’s trapping defense to chip away at the deficit before finally tying the game with 13:25 remaining, part of a 14-4 VCU run over 5:20 with William & Mary’s lone scoring threat on the bench. Back-to-back steals leading to four points by freshman Rob Brandenberg energized the home crowd and the Rams’ pressure defense. However, the Rams never got comfortable in their half-court offense and often settled for long three-point attempts late in the shot clock. Joey Rodriguez ended up being the Rams’ leading scorer with just 13 points, and Jamie Skeen contributed 12. “We’re going to win a lot of games if we get that type of defensive effort on a nightly basis,” Rams head coach Shaka Smart said. “Now the offensive end was a different story. We had a tough shooting night and didn’t execute the way we have shown this year, but that will come, I’m sure of it.”
McDowell eventually re-entered the contest and hit a three with 9:07 to go that knotted the score at 45. However, on the ensuing possession he picked up his fourth foul and again had to resign himself to being a spectator. Rodriguez’s two free throws put VCU ahead 49-47 with 7:04 to go, but VCU couldn’t pull away despite locking up on the Tribe defensively. A three from Kyle Gaillard at the 4:30 mark brought the Tribe within one at 51-50, setting up a dramatic finish.
After two more forced turnovers by the Rams, it appeared that VCU’s defense would prove to be too much for the Tribe to overcome late. But McDowell, playing with four fouls, answered the bell again with a lay-in off a drive with 1:58 left to tie the game at 53.
Enter junior Bradford Burgess.
Burgess, who was briefly taken to the locker room following a scary fall a little under a minute into the second session, hit a huge three-pointer at the 1:18 mark to break the tie and put VCU ahead 56-53. The Rams’ leading scorer on the season coming in, Burgess had mustered only six points prior to that basket (he finished with nine). After McDowell again answered with a fadeaway jumper in the lane to bring the Tribe within one with a little over a minute remaining, Jamie Skeen was fouled and hit one of two free throws to put the Rams ahead by two with 20 seconds left.
On the Tribe’s next possession, McDowell found himself with the ball in his hands and drew a critical foul with eight seconds left. McDowell, coming into the game shooting roughly 84% from the free throw line, missed the front end of the one and one and the Rams secured the rebound to effectively close out the contest. Two free throws from Skeen and a missed desperation three-pointer from William & Mary allowed the home team to escape with a key early conference win in front of their home fans. “It’s a great thing to start 1-0 in the conference and be able to sit on the win for a month (VCU won’t have another conference matchup until early January). We were on the other end of that last year and it wasn’t fun sitting at 0-1 for a month,” Smart stated. “I’m pleased that we get to start this way, but we also know there is a lot to work on.”