It would take me less than one hand to count the number of times Shaka Smart has called a timeout in sheer disgust. He's been dissatisfied, needed to stop the opposition's momentum, wanted to give the officials some pointers, or wanted to reinforce something to his team.
But sheer disgust? Very rare.
However he called one of those timeouts with 12:23 to play in the first half of Sunday's game against Belmont. The Rams trailed 23-11 and the Bruins had made all four three-pointers it shot and were 8-10 from the field overall. The problem was that Belmont wasn't exactly working hard for those shots but were getting wide open looks.
VCU was not playing defense with any sort of edge, Belmont was making them pay, and Smart needed to get their attention. It worked. Coming out of that timeout VCU forced turnovers on four of Belmont's next five possessions. Over five minutes and 11 possessions the Rams forced six turnovers and Belmont missed four of five shots. The 12-point deficit was shaved to 26-23 and the game was again workable.
Two minutes later Treveon Graham made three free throws to tie the game at 31-31, and he made two more with 4.7 seconds left in the half to give VCU a 38-35 halftime lead. It was one of those halves where VCU was outplayed more than it dictated to its opponent, but the Rams held a lead.
Funny, too, was that the second half started just like the first. Belmont hit three straight open shots to take a 50-44 lead, and that's when old school havoc kicked in. Three straight VCU bombs--two by The Melvin and one by JeQuan Lewis--sandwiched two Belmont turnovers and a missed shot. The 9-0 strike was completed in two minutes.
But it kept going.
The run blew out to a 22-2 spree that totalled five minutes and was the hammer of the game. That six-point deficit became a 66-52 lead. The 12 Belmont possessions netted two points. VCU sat down on defense in the stretch, forcing four more turnovers and 1-8 Belmont shooting.
For the most part the rest of the game was a matter of accounting.
As frustrating as this team can be at times, it's beautful to watch in certain stretches. In that first half VCU played well for perhaps six minutes. The Rams played average for about six minutes, and had a coach-cringing eight minutes. In the second half they played better, but it was the lightning bolt five minutes that changed the game. Think about it this way: VCU scored 28% of its points in 12% of the game.
Don't think you have time to go grab a soda. Time your blinks. This team can change a game in a millisecond.
Quick hitters scribbled into the margin of my notebook: #MoSaysNo. Alie-Cox continues to lift his teammates. The stats say two blocks but Cox had a larger impact, on both teams...great to see JeQuan Lewis play so well in front of about 30 family members and friends. However more importantly he took a step forward in his confidence...it was another direct deposit night for Treveon Graham. You barely remember anything he did but look up to see 16 points (on just eight shots) and nine rebounds...Juvonte Reddic had his third double-double in four games. Shaka said postgame Juvonte has always started slowly and it appears the early season is now over. Jarred Guest is not confident with the ball in his hands right now. Guest isn't hunting his shot...Melvin Johnson playing with swagger is a difference-maker for this team.
If you follow me on twitter, you know of my appreciation for that moment at the end of the game where the players stopped on their way to the locker room and saluted the fans that made the trek to Nashville. You can skip forward. If not, here goes:
After the buzzer and handshake line, the players didn't immediately go to the locker room. They made their way over to the corner where the VCU fans had cheered loudly all game. They waved and saluted and showed their appreciation for a large turnout so far from home. It was another of those moments that shows you we have something different and special going on at VCU. The funny part--a group of fans on the flight home again cheered each player, coach, and grad assistant as he boarded the plane.
You can add Belmont to the list of nonconference games VCU should play every season. The Bruins are well-coached, play hard, offer a very good atmosphere in a nice arena, and serve as outstanding hosts. What's more, VCU gets a team that wins games--important for competition and RPI purposes. Belmont is the total package when it comes to opponents.
That list is now three: Virginia, Northeastern, and Belmont.
Eastern Kentucky is next. Two early notes for your Monday: Belmont was predicted to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference. Team that was picked first: Eastern Kentucky. It was also the landing place of former VCU head coach Mike Pollio.
We will dive more deeply into the game later this week. As for now, enjoy a win that is another "better than it looks" victory. In fact, the Rams came away with two victories in a holiday grind weekend. Enjoy that. We will again start worrying tomorrow.