Mar 27, 2011, 8:14 PM EDT
And we all thought that Butler’s run was incredible.
VCU has now done something that no other team has done before. The Rams, who took part in the first ever at-large play-in game just 16 short days ago, is now headed to the Final Four after capping off their astonishing run through the bracket with a 71-61 win over No. 1 seed Kansas. It was their fifth straight win in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first team to ever do so before reaching the Final Four.
The Rams knocked off teams from five of the six BCS conferences. They were the underdog in each of the five games. Their star point guard nearly transferred in the offseason after former head coach Anthony Grant took the job at Alabama. Their star center is a cast-off from Wake Forest. Hell, head coach Shaka Smart, who played basketball at D-III Kenyon College, didn’t even gather his team to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show because he did not believe they were getting in.
Like George Mason in 2006, the Rams have gone from a questionable addition to the tournament to two wins from a national title.
But unlike George Mason, VCU has a real, honest-to-god shot at winning this thing.
VCU didn’t luck into the Final Four. They aren’t headed to Houston because they were given the benefit of a friendly whistle or took advantage of a soft bracket. VCU smothered USC on the defensive end of the floor. They ran both Purdue and Georgetown off of it. After squeaking by Florida State in the Sweet 16, the Rams overcame a hot start by Kansas to take down the tournament’s most talented remaining team.
And this is where VCU’s story starts to differ from George Mason.
When the Patriots made the Final Four in 2006, they knocked off some impressive opponents, but they did so in dramatic fashion. Against a talented-but-enigmatic UConn team that had been struggling throughout the tournament — if you remember, that team nearly lost to Albany in the first round — George Mason overcame a 12 point halftime deficit to win in overtime when Denham Brown’s last second three bounced off the rim.
VCU needed no such luck. And VCU didn’t need to make a comeback.
After the Jayhawks scored the first six point of the game, VCU responded with a 19-4 run that they stretched out to a 39-15 surge. They were up by 14 at the half. Kansas made couple runs at the Rams in the second half, at one point getting as close as two, but VCU had an answer every time.
And while Jamie Skeen will look like the hero, finishing with 26 points and 10 boards, VCU’s real savior was the diminutive Joey Rodriguez. His stat line was, frankly, pretty ugly. He finished with nine points, five boards, five assists, four turnovers, and 2-8 from the field.
But it was Rodriguez who sparked VCU’s final push.
After airballing a three the previous possession and seeing Kansas get within 57-52 with less than five minutes left, Rodriguez stepped up and buried a three early in the shot clock. (In hind sight, it was a pretty dumb shot, one that surely had Smart doing the old “No, no, no, YES!!”) A minute later, Rodriguez dribbled his way under the rim, somehow finding Brad Burgess at the top of the key for a wide open three that pushed the lead to nine points. Two minutes later, Rodriguez again found Burgess, this time on a nifty pass that led to a layup, to put VCU up 65-57 with less than two minutes left.
You see, the thing about VCU in this game — in this tournament — is that they played like the favorite. They were the ones that jumped all over Kansas. They were the team that made the Jayhawks fall back on their heels. The Rams were playing confident, physical basketball. They were jawing after baskets and diving on loose balls.
They spent the first half looking hesitant and unconfident. They took quick, ill-advised shots early in the possession. They turned the ball over and missed free throws (15-28 on the game). The Jayhawks were flustered. They looked ill-prepared for playing on this kind of stage.
VCU may not have been the more talented team, but they were the better team on Sunday afternoon.
And the beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that being the better team on one afternoon is all you need to advance.
That’s why a team that didn’t even think they would get a shot to dance will now be performing on the sport’s biggest stage.
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