SAN ANTONIO -- Joey Rodriguez was out of options and nearly out of time.
“I was counting in my head,” the Virginia Commonwealth guard said. “I was at four.”
Four seconds into his attempt to inbound the ball beneath the Florida State basket. One more tick and it would be a five-second violation, and the Rams would almost certainly have lost their last decent chance to beat the Seminoles.
They trailed 71-70 in overtime, having frittered away a nine-point lead in the final 7:05 of regulation. And now they were eight seconds away from ending their stirring, underdog run to the Sweet 16.
And the clock was ticking in Rodriguez’s head. A play originally designed for Brandon Rozzell blew up when Rozzell and forward Jamie Skeen collided. Then it was on to Plan B -- Bradford Burgess slipping to the hoop off the third screen of the sequence -- which coach Shaka Smart had told his point guard would be open late in the play.
So Rodriguez kept his wits about him. The little senior Smart called the mentally toughest player he’s coached didn’t panic. He faked a deep pass to freeze the Florida State defense, then suddenly discovered Burgess cutting to the basket.
Shocking, in part, because it seemed that no Ram had gotten open for days. Florida State’s vaunted defense had suffocated VCU, holding it to three points in the final 7 ½ minutes of regulation and five more points in overtime. The Seminoles had blocked shots, created turnovers, forced shot-clock violations, instilled doubt in a team that had played so freely and so well for so long.
“I was very surprised,” Rodriguez said.
Kitchen took the blame, saying he turned his head the wrong way and lost Burgess. It would be the second part of an unholy trinity of late-game errors for the senior guard. You could describe the end of regulation and the end of overtime as Hell’s Kitchen.
You also could describe it as Rodriguez’s Redemption. An 84 percent foul shooter on the season and 91 percent in this tournament, he had stunningly missed three free throws in the final minutes of regulation. That was part of a team-wide meltdown at the line as VCU slowly lost its grip on the lead.
“Senior year, you don’t want it to end on free throws like that,” Rodriguez said.
It didn’t. Instead, it ended on the biggest bounce pass in VCU history, the one Rodriguez threaded to Burgess for the layup and the winning points in a 72-71 triumph.
“Joey did a great job pass-faking and finding Brad,” Smart said, “and Brad finished the play.”
The play did not, however, finish the game. Seven seconds remained -- time for Florida State to make a last dash down court. The Seminoles put the ball in Kitchen's hands and hoped for a better result than the end of regulation.
The last possession of regulation had been a disaster. Kitchen lost track of time and dribbled out the clock, failing to turn and get up a shot before the buzzer.
“That was poor judgment on my part,” Kitchen said, showing admirable accountability.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton had watched that transpire while sitting on a pair of unused timeouts. But he said he’d diagrammed the play during the previous timeout and it simply hadn’t panned out.
At the end of overtime, it was more of the same -- Kitchen to the hoop. And again Hamilton thought the play was going to work.
Kitchen drove to within a few feet of the hoop and seemingly had a decent shot -- then passed out to Chris Singleton. Kitchen said he fumbled the ball on his way up and didn’t think he’d get off a good shot, thus the pass. Singleton’s medium-range jump shot was blocked by Rob Brandenberg -- but it was unclear whether that one got off in time, either.
When the horn sounded, the Noles were left to ponder a determined comeback that was undone by late-game ineptitude. And the Rams were free to go wild.
Their ability to defy all expectations has made them the story of this NCAA tournament. A team that was barely granted admittance to the Big Dance dominated its first three games -- then had to win this one in dramatic fashion.
It was VCU’s second late-game escape of the season. The first one occurred in the Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinals, when Skeen barely beat the buzzer with a spinning layup for a 62-60 victory over Drexel.
“If he doesn’t hit that,” Smart said, “we’re not standing here.”
That’s how thin the margin of error was for the Rams just to get into this tournament. Now, in a fitting absurdity for a season that long ago began defying rational explanation, VCU is 40 minutes from the Final Four.
And all the Rams need to do is take down the last No. 1 seed in the field, mighty Kansas.
Earlier Friday, the Jayhaws ripped Richmond by 20. Earlier in the season, the Spiders ripped crosstown rival VCU by 12.
The math says this is a bad matchup for the Rams.
The Rams, just the sixth team seeded 11th or worse to make it this far, will counter that math with their beguiling brand of March magic.
“We’re going to have to strap it up,” Smart said, then smiled. “But I’ve got a feeling our guys are going to be ready.”