BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Virginia Commonwealth Rams coach Shaka Smart lives for March.
Smart’s Rams are now in their fourth conference final in the last five seasons after wreaking havoc against the George Washington Colonials on Saturday and pulling away in the second half on their way to a 74-55 victory in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.
Junior guard Treveon Graham’s key 3-pointer with 5:37 left in regulation separated the Rams from the Colonials for the first time all game and was a blow that George Washington was unable to recover from.
“Just playing basketball,” Graham said of what it means to ‘attack’. “Just finding what you see open, defense, just havoc all over the place, pressing the ball, that’s what we do. So, if it works, we do it, so we might as well do it every game.”
Graham finished with 22 points and four timely 3-pointers to lead VCU to a win and a berth in the Atlantic 10 championship game against fourth-seeded Saint Joseph’s.
Forward Mo Alie-Cox tipped home a miss by VCU guard Rob Brandenberg miss with 4:21 remaining to give the Rams their first double-digit lead of the game and the crowd came alive inside the Barclays Center as VCU showed the country that it is prepared for another deep run in March.
VCU’s pressure, led by junior guard Briante Weber and his tenacious defense, forced 15 Colonials turnovers. Forward Kevin Larsen felt the pressure all day, turning the ball over six times.
Forward Isaiah Armwood carried the Colonials for much of the first half, scoring 10 of his 15 points and making all four of his shots from the field before intermission. He scored seven of George Washington’s first nine points and sparked an early 14-9 lead for the Colonials.
Armwood converted an and-one layup with eight seconds remaining in the first half to give George Washington a 31-30 lead. Brandenburg answered Armwood with a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Rams into the locker room with a 33-31 advantage.
Faced against George Washington’s disruptive 1-3-1 zone, VCU did the one thing that they do better than anyone else: Attack.
“I thought (Briante Weber and Treveon Graham) along with Jordan Burgess and Rob Brandenberg showed a lot of guts against the 1-3-1,” Smart said. “That’s the best word I can use to describe it. Because when the game started, we were very tentative. We were on our heels and trying to pass the ball around, had a couple unforced turnovers. I told those guys, you’ve got to attack and get into the gaps.”
The opportunity was there for VCU, who found success taking what George Washington was giving them in the second half.
“They were trying to funnel us to the middle but me and Treveon see the middle they had Larsen trying to check us,” Weber said. “We just attacked him and read whatever the defense gave us. Most of the time it was (Treveon) coming behind us for the open shot or to attack the elbow as well.”
George Washigton struggled to keep up with the defensive spark provided by the VCU bench in the second half, which provided a huge momentum swing in the Rams favor.
“We struggled to score because their bench did a good job and we were tired late,” said George Washington coach Mike Lonergan. “The two shots that beat the shot clock — a three and a two — those five points were really big killers and a big momentum swing, so that really hurt us.”
Weber finished with 16 points and a game-high eight assists. Alie-Cox’s eight points and seven rebounds off the bench provided the Rams with a huge lift. His interior post defense frustrated the Colonials in the second half as they shot just 33.3 percent from the field after halftime.
“He’s playing great lately,” said Graham of Alie-Cox. “He’s defending the basket well for only being 6-foot-6 and to be able to block shots out there is amazing. Rebounding wise, he’s a monster on the boards … when he brings the type of aggressiveness he brought today he’s really effective e on the floor.”
Armwood, after his early success, was shut down in the second half and was unable to do much against the interior defense of the
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