Shaka Smart stood silent, motionless, as the national anthem unfurled in front of him minutes prior to tipoff in what would eventually be a 68-47 gallop past the home team. Smart’s hands were clasped behind his back, feet shoulder-width apart. His head was ever so slightly bowed. Smart’s eyes were closed as the words were sung, not squenched shut nor fluttery and light. He seemed to be in a place somewhere between a calming, centering meditation and reviewing the tactics of what VCU needed to do to win.
It was as if he was channeling those lyrics of determination into his team for its significant challenge and need to overcome a tough opponent.
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Francis Scott Key has nothing on Shaka Smart.
Simply put, VCU took Cincinnati behind the woodshed on the Bearcats’ own property. The Rams administered a beating to a team known for giving them out, playing the Ralphie Parker to Scut Farkus.
The Bearcats were 24-1 in their last 25 games at First Third Arena, and had just beaten the 19th-ranked team in the country. VCU never trailed, and in fact the game was only tied for 1:06. Funny thing about about that, too, is that nobody scored in the first 1:06 of the game so once the scoring dam was broken VCU was never even tied. What’s more, Treveon Graham hit a three with 7:26 to go in the first half to give the Rams a 23-11 lead, and the double-digit lead held up those final 27 minutes.
The first half was about offensive execution. Time after time VCU worked for an open shot and got it. Though the Rams hit just 40% of its shots, it was wide open look after wide open look. The shot chart shows VCU hit 5-7 from the same spot–the short-corner three. But wait, there’s more!
VCU made six field goals from the 15:43 mark to Graham’s key three at the 7:26 mark. All six were threes. That spree turned a 5-4 lead into a 23-11 lead. They committed just three turnovers and assisted on eight of 11 field goals. The Rams shredded Cincinnati.
The defense was no slouch. Cincinnati shot 7-28 in the half (25%), and made one of nine threes.
The second half was the other way. Defensive intensity took over and put the offense at ease. VCU took its 13-point halftime lead and extended it with a 10-4 run in the first five minutes of the second half. Cincy upped its intensity level and got the deficit back to 15, but Melvin Johnson hit a Melvin and VCU scored eight straight points to take a 52-29 lead. That’s all she wrote.
As for Melvin, he epitomized a closeness I’m seeing in this team that I don’t know we had last year. After an 0-4 first half, both players and coaches reiterated that they believed in him and he should continue shooting, despite a two and one-half game slump. Well, you saw it. Johnson drilled 4-6 from three and scored all 18 of his points in the second half.
“We always want to get [Melvin Johnson] the ball because he is a very gifted offensive player,” said Smart. “The change was in his mentality. In the first half, I think he was pressing it a little bit. He really, really wanted the ball to go in for himself because he was coming off some rough shooting games. We told him at halftime to stay with it and keep a good mentality because the next one is going in.”
In all VCU bombed in 15 threes on the day. Tre Graham had six assists and zero turnovers. Garbage buckets late prevented Cincinnati from becoming the second straight opponent to record as many turnovers and baskets made.
In short, that was the best overall performance on both ends, and in both halves, we’ve seen all year. It brings the December record of Shaka Smart’s teams to 41-6, including 24-2 in the past 26 December games. Defense continues to set the tone, and the offense is growing. The guys passed another test, this one a road warrior toughness test.
Bombs bursting in air. Proof through the night.