VCUs modus operandi played out once again last night, with havoc providing the Rams an early cushion to work with for most of its 59-56 CAA championship victory over Drexel. In the 120 minutes of basketball over the weekend, VCU trailed for just 1:44.
“It took a whole team effort to do what we did tonight,” said Shaka Smart. “Drexel is a phenomenal team. Give Drexel credit. We certainly weren’t considered an NCAA caliber team in November, but we got better collectively, individually, and as a group.”
VCU forced 12 turnovers in the first half, including eight steals, and blocked four shots. The Rams consistently foiled Drexel’s high ball screens and never let the Dragons settle into an offensive rhythm.
The first two VCU baskets of the game were generated by steals resulting from blowing up that handoff. Drexel went nearly seven minutes without a field goal during one stretch, missing nine consecutive shots and committing four turnovers. The blitz allowed VCU to jump out to its second straight 16-point halftime lead.
“All year long, we talked about how it’s going to come down to defense and that’s what got us to this point,” said Brad Burgess. “It doesn’t matter if we’re making shots or not, if we’re focused on the defensive end, we’re going to have a chance to win every game.”
VCU, which entered the contest leading the nation in steals per game (10.7), finished the game with 10 steals, its school-record ninth-straight game with double-digit thefts. The night extended VCUs conference record number of steals to 363 for the season.
The second half belonged to Drexel, who chipped away at the VCU lead. Freshman Damion Lee scored a game-high 20 points for the Dragons and ignited a late rally with his fourth three-pointer. Lee’s baseline lay-up with 1:56 remaining cut the deficit to 54-50 and his steal on an inbounds play on the next possession set up a Samme Givens’ free throw that made it 54-51.
“I thought we didn’t play with toughnes in the first half, so I said (at halftime) okay we’re going to play with some toughness,” said Bruiser Flint. “In the second half we played with toughness, like we usually play. We came up with some balls. We didn’t have guys knock us down and steal the ball from us. We made it our type of game. They actually played our style of game in the second half.”
VCU had 16 fast break points in the first half, but only two in the second half.
After Treveon Graham hit 1-2 at the line for VCU, Massenat knocked down a pair of free throws to pull Drexel within 55-53. Daniels answered with a pair of free throws at the other end to push the advantage to four with 19 seconds to go. Chris Fouch then drilled a long three from the right wing to pull Drexel within a single point, 57-56.
“You play in the conference finals or semifinals, a team is going to make a run,” said Smart. “We did a great job spurting into halftime, but Drexel did a great job buckling down on defense. They hit some big shots, Damion Lee hit some big threes, Chris Fouch. It isn’t like we weren’t guarding them. They hit some big shots.”
Daniels was fouled and once again stepped to the line and converted twice with 12 seconds to go for what proved to be the final margin. Frantz Massenat had a look at a three to tie in the final seconds. His shot was on target, bounding high off the back rim and remaining midair for what felt like an eternity, mometarily sucking all the oxygen out of the Richmond Coliseum.
But the ball fell harmeless away, and VCU secured the victory.
“I wanted to take that shot,” said Massenat. “I thought it was going in. I just missed it.”
Lee agreed with his teammate on the podium in postgame: “I thought it was good, just like everyone else in the gym. But it wasn’t and here we are.”
It’s fitting that Massenat’s shot fell into the hands of Theus, whose 16 points, five assists, and five steals paced the VCU attack and earned him Most Outstanding Player honors.
“He’s an amazing floor general,” said Brad Burgess of Theus. “He was under Joey (Rodriguez), who got guidance from Eric (Maynor). The things he’s doing he’s been capable of his whole career.”
Said Theus: ”I’m just happy for Bradford to finish his senior year with a championship. The confidence my team has in me to make plays is a blessing.”