VCU survives battle of contrasts with UVa

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Fans who tuned in to the final three minutes of No.14 VCU’s 59-56 victory over No. 25 Virginia on Tuesday night didn’t quite witness a display indicative of the entire game. Those last possessions, culminating in Treveon Graham’s highlight-reel 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds remaining, were certainly more dramatic.

Graham’s trey -- and UVA’s missed 3 on the game’s final possession -- sent the vocal visiting VCU fans into a frenzy while the Cavalier faithful fell silent amidst the sellout crowd of 13,881 inside John Paul Jones Arena. Ultimately, the Rams’ 3-pointers -- 5-for-14, four of which they hit in the second half -- and their swarming havoc defense gave them the edge over the Cavaliers, who shot 1-for-8 from behind the arc.

The score stayed close the entire night (nine ties, six lead changes, each team holding a seven-point lead at one point) in a deliberately-paced, whistle-ridden battle between Virginia’s two top-25 teams that hadn’t faced each other since 1998.

Five minutes in, the teams totaled eight fouls -- and had only taken 10 shots. Foul calls were up to 27 by the end of the first half, 48 by game’s end. UVa struggled offensively in the early minutes, passing too many times and not driving the lane enough. Meanwhile, VCU hit an offensive rhythm, driving to the basket on consecutive possessions and drawing fouls. Still, the Cavaliers kept the score close with fiery plays like senior Joe Harris’ 3-pointer four minutes into the game (Harris led all Cavalier scorers with 18 points in 34 minutes) and Mike Tobey’s blocked shot with two minutes remaining in the half.

And though they'd prepared for weeks in practice, the Cavaliers still struggled against Shaka Smart’s swarming full-court pressure (which led the country in steals last season), turning the ball over 11 times in the first half.

Despite the numerous foul calls, neither team shot well from the free throw line, with VCU only hitting 40 percent of its foul shots to Virginia’s 57.6 percent.

With just over three minutes remaining in the first half, the Cavaliers surged, taking their first lead of the game, 22-21, while the Rams missed several baskets and struggled against the Cavaliers' defense.

“This game is an example of why Virginia is so good on the defensive end,” Smart said afterward. “They take you out of what you are trying to do. I thought we did a good job of playing fast but we did not have too many opportunities.”

Virginia held a two-point lead at halftime and started the second half strong, crashing the boards for rebounds and passing efficiently while driving the basket. VCU kept the score close by hitting two 3s in the opening minutes of the half.

Each time UVa looked to move ahead, VCU answered, often with a basket from Graham, who led all scorers with 22 points and stepped up after VCU's big men got into foul trouble early in the second half. Both teams picked up their offensive pace while slowing their foul pace. VCU still worked to force turnovers, adding eight more (last season the Rams were 27-1 when forcing 15 or more turnovers).

The Wahoos broke through VCU’s defense more effectively and turned the ball over less in the second half, building up to a seven-point lead with six minutes remaining. But the Rams refused to go away, staying tough defensively and forcing hurried shots.

“It’s tough,” Harris said of VCU’s defense. “That’s their whole mantra -- trying to play up-tempo offensively and up in your face defensively in the half-court and full-court. It’s definitely a different way to play.”

With a minute remaining, UVa was down by one and had possession. Harris airballed a 3-point and the Cavaliers fouled Briante Weber, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. Virginia rebounded and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon drove the lane, drawing the foul. Brodgon missed the first free throw but nailed the second, tying the score with 9.7 seconds remaining.

And then, almost in slow motion, the Rams took control, passing the ball several times before dishing it out to Graham.

“When I got the ball back, I knew there were only three seconds left,” Graham said. “I take those kind of throwback shots every day in practice. I was confident enough to know if Rob [Brandenberg] would throw it back I would have made it. It was close toward the end of the game, so I was thinking that I needed to pick up my game.”

In doing so, Graham sealed the close win for the Rams, who next face Winthrop on Saturday. The Cavaliers will battle Davidson in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, and said tonight’s close loss was a boost in looking ahead at their next opponents.

“I think this loss is going to end up being a blessing,” Brogdon said. “Even though we started the year ranked, we need to not get too high on ourselves, take it down a notch and work harder in practice. We won’t play another team that plays at a faster tempo, so we’ll be ready for any kind of pace a team tries to play against us.”

Unless these two teams meet again in the postseason, of course.