I knew there was something just a little different to last night's victory over Charlotte when I looked to the VCU bench and Mike Morrell, the basketball director of operations, was smiling.
There was less than one minute to play, and Rob Brandenberg had just hit a free throw to push VCUs lead back to 10 points. Morrell exchanged a couple words with associate head coach Mike Rhoades, and a big grin uncovered Morrell's pearlies.
You see, Morrell never seems happy on the VCU bench. Oh, I'm sure he's enjoying it--I've gotten to know Mike a little and he's a very friendly and good guy. But on the bench, during games, he carries the look and intensity of a father whose straight-A student son was just caught toilet-papering his English teacher's house.
Even during blowout wins.
Last night was that kind of a victory. Heading into the Charlotte game, there were lingering questions. VCU was 6-2 in A10 play, but it didn't take the Hubble Telescope to see every one of the six victories were against the bottom six teams in the conference.
This was a road test against a 5-3 conference team that was 11-0 on its home floor prior to last night's tip. The Niners had beaten LaSalle, Xavier, and UMass on that court. The best opposing student section we've seen this year lustily booed VCU. Charlotte was big and physical--a true test against the smallish lineups havoc demands.
And let's face it. Back-to-back victories over Rhode Island (1-8) and Fordham (2-7), a combined 3-15 in A10 play, are not exactly ego-boosters coming off the Richmond/LaSalle double-whammy.
VCU had to prove a few things to themselves, and to the rest of the A10. Consider it done. Test passed. Smile.
Behind 21 points from Rob Brandenberg--who scored 14 points in the second half and hit three manly shots--and a smothering halfcourt defense, the Rams parried every Charlotte attempt at a rally and high-stepped its way to the 68-61 victory.
The defense forced 17 turnovers, but more importantly kept Charlotte from running clean offense. The Niners were often forced into late-clock fadeaway jumpers or forced shots in traffic. VCU created just enough havoc in the open court--23 points scored off turnovers--to stay comfortably ahead in the second half.
VCU needed that kind of a performance, as Charlotte dominated the glass, doubling up VCU 36-18.
However that's the trampolean to why everyone is pleased with the victory. Charlotte killed the Rams on the boards (17 offensive rebounds), got to the foul line 14 more times, and shot 51.1% for the game. VCU battled foul trouble.
The only way you win those kinds of games, when drubbed in those stats, is to play the manner in which you want to play and execute in the manner you wish to execute. VCU created offense from that stout defense, shot an efficient 7-18 from three, 7-8 from the line, and scored 1.17 points per possession. That mark is the best since St. Joseph's and the eighth-best on the season for the Rams.
Shaka Smart was even pleased, eschewing his normal tactic of getting the guys to move on from a win. Last night in the locker room he said that the coaches were going to move immediately forward, but the guys should savor that victory, a big test passed.
This is a good basketball team.
Statistics That Jump Out At Me
16 of 17 in more than 14 minutes. This rebounding statistic will depict just how well VCU played, and why rebounding will be on the practice agenda. From the 7:45 mark of the first half until the 13:07 mark of the second half, Charlotte outrebounded VCU 16-1. That is not a misprint. But get this: the Rams held a 10-point lead when the barrage began, and a nine-point lead when it ended. That's resolve.
Nine. Four, Zero. Nine of 13 field goals in the second half were in the paint. The other four field goals were threes--that's how you play efficient offense. Shoot them either close to the basket or from long enough distances to get the extra point. The 17-foot jumper isn't an efficient shot.
1-7. That's Charlotte's three-point ineffectiveness. The only make was a banker, and the Niners only attempted two three-points in the first 38 minutes of the game. And while it's true Charlotte is a poor three-point shooting team, both makes and attempts tied their lowest output of the season. Remember, too, that the Niners just hit 7-10 against Temple. VCU threw a defensive bag over their heads and stuffed them in the car trunk.
34. With his late-game, backbreaker three, Troy Daniels has now made a three in 34 straight games. It's the fourth-longest active streak.
The Curmudgeon's View
This is another game where there's a lot to like. Every basketball game is going to be different and though you try, your opponent's composition means you cannot excel at every phase of the game. Charlotte's size and sizzle--they played as hard as any opponent we've seen this year--allows me to give the rebounding deficiency a pass.
My question revolves around the rotation behind Juvonte Reddic. David Hinton was a stud last night, but if he was capable of that every night we would've seen him in that role before game number 24. It feels like Jarred Guest plays empty minutes, and while I'm glad we've got The Big Buddha back in the fold, how will he work back into the lineup?
Stars of the Game
***Rob Brandenberg. He made every play last night. Brandenberg's jumper in the first half broke a 10-0 Charlotte run, his steal-and-flush to open the second half served notice, and Brandenberg scored eight straight points for VCU in the latter stages of the game to keep Charlotte at bay.
**David Hinton. His 13 minutes were second most in his career--only a 15-minute outing in Hinton's sophomore season was greater. These minutes were highly impactful, as Hinton subbed for foul-plagued Juvonte Reddic and had a big tip in and played big boy defense all night against the physical Niners.
*Darius Theus. Darius is starting to bore me. His value was most evident last night when he was not on the floor as the offense was less precise. Theus had seven points, six assists, and one turnover during play, too. He now has 51 assists and 11 turnovers in nine A10 games.