Two teams known for defense showcased those credentials in a Commonwealth clash Tuesday night at the John Paul Jones Arena. VCU, branded by the relentless term Havoc, prevailed 59-56 against Virginia and the unyielding Pack-Line defense.
A big-time offensive play made the difference in the end, however, as the Rams’ Treveon Graham drilled a contested NBA range 3-pointer with just 1.4 seconds to decide the outcome. That brought the 13,881 fans to either stunned silence or exuberance depending on whether they were wearing orange or gold.
“When I got the ball back, I knew there were only three seconds left. 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,” said Graham, who had 22 points. “It was close towards the end of the game, so I was thinking that I needed to pick up my game. I was using that for motivation and I wanted to attack the basket and finish.”
“We tried to switch the defense. [London Perrantes] was pretty close to it,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said. “It was some action earlier that they got in the corner that hurt us. … It was a big shot. I think they hit two out of three big ones down the stretch. It was pretty well defended and it was an NBA three. So maybe that is all you can ask for. We may have been able to meet him a little sooner but there was a lot of action going on and he stepped up and made it.”
Thanks to some stingy defense on both ends, the dagger 3-pointer was one of few shots to find the bottom of the net Tuesday night. The Rams finished 5 of 14 from 3-point range (35.7%), both makes and attempts falling below their recent historic averages (7 makes/22 attempts approximately). Overall, VCU made just 41.4% of its shots (24-58), though it did improve its fortunes with a 15-31 showing (48.4%) in the second half. The visitors logged 7 assists vs. 13 turnovers.
Other than Graham, no one reached double figures as Juvonte Reddic chipped in 9 and Brandenberg added 7.
A lot of credit there goes to the Pack-Line defense, which clogs up the lane and contests long shots. For the most part, the scheme and the players did their job against the Rams’ attack. The biggest issues came against weave action up top early in the game and some dragging on-ball screen action late. So yes, there is work still to do but holding VCU in the 50’s is generally a good night (the neighbors from Richmond averaged 76.9 per game last season).
“On our drives we were getting too far down in the lane. Virginia has some big athletic guys that were forcing us to miss some shots,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “This game is an example of why Virginia is so good on the defensive end. 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.”
On the flipside, Virginia Commonwealth’s trademark Havoc scheme caused issues too. While the fullcourt pressure didn’t always create turnovers or speed up UVa’s pace regularly, it did wear down the Hoos and it did seem to keep them out of rhythm. Just as important, however, was the oft forgotten part of the system – VCU really gets up and challenges you with the halfcourt defense too. The Cavaliers made just 39.1% of their shots (18-46) and finished 1-8 (12.5%) from 3-point range. Joe Harris had a team-high 18 points and moved into 26th place on the program’s all-time scoring list (1,278 points to pass Tony Laquintano – 1,263 pts, 1960-62). Malcolm Brogdon added 10 points, while Darion Atkins posted 8 points and 8 rebounds. Mike Tobey contributed 5 points and a career-high 9 rebounds.
The Hoos also tallied 9 assists vs. 19 turnovers. VCU had 9 steals as part of that total.
“It’s tough. That’s their whole mantra – trying to play up-tempo offensively and up in your face defensively in the halfcourt and fullcourt,” Harris said. “It’s tough; it’s definitely a different way to play. We don’t see a lot of press defenses and fast break teams that run both.”
“We played hard. So did VCU. It came down to the end of the game, but we didn’t take care of the ball or knock down free throws like we wanted and it came back to haunt us,” Brogdon said. “But, we have to give credit to them, they played a hell of a game.”
Indeed, the Hoos had to rue missed opportunities at the free throw line. After all, despite VCU’s tough defense, Virginia earned 33 attempts at the charity stripe. Unfortunately, the hosts made just 19 of 33 (57.6%), while the Rams made 6 of 15 (40.0%). Simply put, other than Akil Mitchell’s 5-7 effort that helped him log 9 points, the Cavaliers didn’t take advantage of that disparity at the line.
That was especially true down the stretch. The Hoos took the lead with 10:01 remaining and had numerous chances to pull away as they built a 7-point lead with seven minutes to play and a 6-point lead with 2:52 to go. Instead, VCU pulled ahead at the 1:17 mark and then broke the game’s ninth tie with Graham’s game-winning shot. Over that final 10:02, Virginia went 4 of 8 at the free throw line, missed two lay-ups, and committed 6 turnovers (roughly 1/3 of the 19 total). UVa also came up empty on some disjointed possessions late in the game as it scored just 3 points over the final 5 minutes.
“They put so much pressure on you defensively that you try to get aggressive and get a hands-on call and that is why Joe [Harris] tried to drive. We got a couple of poor shots. Justin [Anderson] had one and I think Joe had one. They did a good job defensively. That’s where you try to spread it and attack a little bit but they are hard to get by,” Bennett said. “Perhaps I could’ve called a timeout and run a set at that time, but I need to take a look at that. I wish we could’ve gotten better shots. But even with that being said just the ability to step to the free throw line or make a solid pass could’ve put them in a tougher situation.”
The 1-1 Cavaliers face Davidson on Saturday at noon in Charlotte.