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Led by seniors, VCU shows the toughness of a champion

January 15, 2015 Columns No Comments

SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – If VCU wins the Atlantic 10, as most prognosticators felt they would before the season, one game they will surely be able to look back on is Tuesday night’s 65-60 win at Rhode Island. It’s still early – just four games in – but given the winning Shaka Smart has done at the school, including with the core of this team, he has some perspective on it.

“This was not our best game overall, as a team, but I think it was our best resolve that we’ve shown,” Smart said after VCU rallied to beat Rhode Island on Tuesday. “These are the type of games you need to win on the road if you want to compete for a championship in your league, and that’s a goal of ours. It’s really, really early in the year, but this is a game hopefully we’ll look back at and say, that’s one we needed to get, and we found a way to get it.”

Tuesday’s game was an exercise in toughness all the way around for VCU. It’s easy to say experience was big, given that their two seniors played such big roles, but that wasn’t all.

This wasn’t going to be an easy game to begin with, being on the road against another 3-0 team. Rhode Island also controlled most of the game, leading in large part because of their defense and the way they handled VCU’s pressure. It wasn’t just in a press off a made basket, especially since VCU had trouble making shots, that Rhode Island handled it well; they did a great job of moving without the ball and then moving the ball against pressure in the halfcourt set.

VCU’s offense didn’t get a lot of ball movement, leaving them to go one-on-one too often. Smart gave credit to Rhode Island for taking them out of what they wanted to do. Rhode Island came in having won six straight, and they looked like they could make it seven.

Then a strange thing happened: VCU’s best player went down, and stayed down. The way VCU was playing, they couldn’t really afford to lose Treveon Graham.

“When he was on the ground for so long, I was praying he was okay, that nothing was broken,” said guard Briante Weber. “His presence is definitely needed for us.”

Graham, who has a chance to become the school’s all-time leading scorer, limped to the bench and spent time trying to loosen up. He came back in, was noticeably gimpy, but hit a three-pointer, then later banked in another one. He didn’t stop there, going on to score a game-high 26 points on 10-17 shooting, including 4-8 from long range. All of it came with several NBA scouts in attendance.

At first, he was the one VCU player who could do much offensively. In time, others followed his lead. Weber, his four-year teammate, figured he would be back in the game once he was able to get up.

“If it’s not broke, I was pretty sure he was coming back,” said Weber. “I had belief in him no matter what. When he came back, it definitely lifted our spirits even more knowing he was going to battle through. If he can do it, why not all 13 of us?”

Weber did his part as well, settling the team down and being the engine that makes this team go, as he so often is. Graham said Weber set the stage for him to return, but even after he was back, Weber was a key. He led the decisive 10-0 run in the final minutes that put VCU ahead to stay, including four free throws in the final minute on a night when his team struggled at the foul line (VCU was 5-17 from the line before he made all four in the final 11 seconds).

In fact, because Graham had the big numbers and played through an injury, it would be easy to miss Weber’s importance on the evening.

“Briante really sets the tone on that for our team,” said Smart. “He’s really our motor. He did a great job talking, getting guys in timeouts engaged, understanding that we’ve just got to continue focusing on the current play that we have and not worry so much about what happened on the last play.”

Graham’s toughness that he displayed didn’t surprise anyone in the VCU locker room. Still, it was big for this team and they took something from it. Along with Weber keeping this team going, it helped them realize something you would expect a team as seasoned on the road as this one is to already know, but sometimes a team needs a reminder.

“It took us a little time to figure out that we could win tonight,” said Smart. “Once we figured that out, led by these guys, that’s what allowed us to win.”

It’s a win that can do wonders for this team, far beyond extending their current winning streak to nine games. VCU didn’t play their best and never really got untracked, but they found a way to win on the road. There’s an obvious plus when you win on a night you don’t play your best, but the benefits go beyond that. They showed great toughness in persevering through all the in-game adversity they faced, while at the same time come away knowing that it’s very clear that this team can get better.

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