By Ryan Lazo
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Virginia Commonwealth University captured the eyes of the national media two years ago when as a one of the last four teams to enter the NCAA Tournament, they advanced all the way to the Final Four playing an unconventional style.
It’s a style they call havoc, a pressure defense that never relents and forces opponents to make mental mistakes and physically exhaust an opponent by the end of the game, usually pitting VCU on top.
However, in their first Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament game, VCU did not bring Saint Joseph’s University Hawks to the point of exhaustion, but instead allowed them to stay in the game to the bitter end in an 82-79 victory at the Barclays Center.
“It was hard fought game. Credit Saint Joseph’s because they really battled,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said after his team’s quarterfinal victory. “They came at us, shot the ball extremely well. We obviously need to play better defense. I thought what won us the game was our first half defense.”
Because VCU’s havoc defense confused and frustrated the Hawks in the opening minutes as the Rams’ forced six turnovers and took a 13-6 lead. But then the Hawks attacked VCU, stopping havoc in its tracks and even forced the Rams into uncommon mistakes themselves.
But by the end of the half, it seems the Hawks were out of gas.
VCU’s hockey line substitution pattern was keeping their team fresh, while the Hawks, after playing yesterday did not have a spark in their step. However, Martelli’s group came out in the second half ready to go.
The Hawks opened the second half on a 10-2 run, sucking the life out of VCU and forcing Smart to call a timeout. His Rams’ squad responded to the pressure immediately as Rob Bradenburg, Troy Daniels and Treveon Graham each nailed consecutive 3-pointers, ending the Hawks’ run.
“They hit the jumpers when they needed to,” Langston Galloway said of VCU. “That was the difference in the game — missed assignments.”
But VCU’s lack of hitting jumpers at the end of the game nearly doomed them as well.
With 2:07 remaining the game, Daniels’ hit a lay-up for two of his 14 points on the night, giving VCU a 72-57 lead. A 15-point lead with that amount of time should be considered safe if the team dribbles out the clock.
But VCU did not follow conventional wisdom.
The Rams did what got them into this position in the first place, the same strategy that took them to the Final Four and the strategy that has proven to work in each game. VCU continued to push the ball up the floor, found an open man and quickly fired.
However, they did not hear the swish on nylon, but the clank of the rim as the shots did not fall. And on the other side, the Hawks shots kept falling. Galloway hit critical free throws after numerous drives to the hoop, finishing with 25 points on the night.
Carl Jones also hit some big three balls, two of them in the last two minutes of regulation, finishing with a game-high 29 points. But VCU made just enough free throws at the end to sneak by.
“We’re not a conventional team,” Smart said after his team let the 15-point lead slip away. “If you have a a wide-open three for Troy Daniels, wide-open, from the wing, I’m taking that. Now, maybe conventional wisdom says otherwise, but I take my chances with that.”
And it’s those risks, the taking of chances and the loose style that has created a winning culture at VCU.
Most coaches would not risk playing a full-court pressure defense, hell-bent on forcing turnovers, when it gives up many easy lay-ups. But Smart’s thinking is this — we’re going to turn you over more times than you will beat us.
That strategy has worked to a tune of 109 wins in just four years as a head coach at VCU for Smart.
“We’re not a pretty team, we’re a scrappy team,” Smart said. “We take pride in getting to the floor before anyone else does. That energizes our guys.”
And it certainly energized VCU during this game as five different players scored in double-figures, including Treveon Graham who scored a team-high 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting. The final line does not have to be pretty. All that matters to Smart and VCU is coming out on top.
Smart and VCU have made their conference tournament finals in four of the past six season and with their gambling nature, they are betting on doing it once again.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13