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VCU hosts Navy in ‘Sweater Game’ pre-holiday matchup

The stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas will soon be there.

The VCU Rams men’s basketball team (8-4) hopes that Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick will bring the gift of a win a few days early.

The doors of the Stuart C. Siegel Center in downtown Richmond will open one final time before Christmas, as the Rams face the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen (7-4) for the first time since 1980.

Serving as the last tune-up before VCU enters Atlantic 10 conference play, the Rams enter Wednesday night’s contest riding a three-game winning streak. The streak was punctuated by VCU’s highest offensive output of the season, a 90-63 win over Northern Illinois at the Siegel Center on Saturday.

VCU will look to continue to ride the momentum in what has become a must-win game to keep any semblance of postseason aspirations alive. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night and will be broadcast locally on MASN and streaming nationwide on ESPN+.

Last time out

The injury woes continued for VCU, as top scorer Brandon Johns Jr. was held out of Saturday’s game against Northern Illinois with a back injury.

The late scratch created an opportunity for another newcomer, Hartford transfer David Shriver, who earned his first start as a Ram in Johns’ absence.

The sharpshooter, who had struggled in recent games, came out firing on Saturday and knocked down his first three 3-pointer attempts. Shriver ended the game with 14 points on 3-for-4 from beyond the arc, by far his best game at VCU. Shriver alone made as many 3-pointers as the entire Northern Illinois team, while VCU shot 43.8% from deep.

VCU’s top scorer was redshirt sophomore Jamir Watkins, who scored a career-high 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Watkins’ previous career-high was 15 points, earned almost exactly two years previously against Western Carolina. The New Jersey native missed the entire 2021-22 season after suffering a torn right ACL in September 2021.

Jalen DeLoach joined Watkins in having a career day, putting up a career-high-tying 16 points. It was his second 16-point performance of the month, tying his performance in the Dec. 3 loss to Temple. DeLoach also led all players with nine rebounds.

Junior point guard Ace Baldwin continued to put up impressive numbers, this time dishing out a team-high eight assists. The Baltimore native paired that with 10 points, one of four Rams to score in double figures.

Baldwin’s numbers have placed him in the upper echelons of the conference and, despite missing five games due to injury, has placed him in the conversation of A-10 Player of the Year.

In all, 11 Rams hit the floor and contributed to the scoring barrage, including walk-on senior Arnold Henderson VI. The fan favorite came into the game in the final minute, scoring one point at the free throw line.

All told, the game was exactly what VCU needed, a “get right” game that featured VCU’s highest-scoring game of the season. VCU eclipsed its prior season-high with roughly eight minutes to go in the game.

Highlight plays

In the last week, VCU fans have been treated to a some memorable, highlight-reel plays.

In the Dec. 14 win against Radford, Baldwin had a nice play under the basket to make a high-difficulty layup up-and-under that kissed the rim.

For his efforts, Baldwin was honored with the No. 5 play on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays list that night.

On Saturday, freshman Tobi Lawal got the Siegel Center on its feet with an electric first half dunk off of a fast break. The dunk marked yet another early career highlight for the London native, who has the highest vertical on the VCU roster and is among the most athletic players in the Mike Rhoades era.

Lawal’s dunk required some repair work from the VCU Cheer squad during the half in what may be a first for the Siegel Center.

Later in the game, Lawal brought down the house again with a thunderous dunk off of a lob from Michigan transfer Zeb Jackson. The dunks were Lawal’s only points of the night.

Up next: Navy

VCU’s non-conference schedule has not been without blemishes, with tough losses to Jacksonville and Temple, but the Rams have the chance to end on a four-game win streak with the Minutemen coming to town.

Navy has a similar record at 7-4, albeit with zero wins against opponents in Quadrant 1 or 2. Because of the bumpy ride VCU’s non-conference has been, Navy outranks VCU in the NET, #128 to #139.

Navy enters the Siegel Center on a two-game winning streak, with an overtime victory against Towson and a 93-54 win over Division III Washington (Md.). The Washington (Md.) game is the only home game in a 36-day span for the Midshipmen.

Navy’s leading scorer is Tyler Nelson, who is also the only player to start all 11 of the Midshipmen’s games. Nelson, a senior forward from North Carolina, is averaging 12.9 points per game and is shooting above 48% from the floor and from deep. Since 2020, Nelson has started every game for Navy except one – senior night last season.

Nelson is also Navy’s co-leader in rebounds, tied at 61 total with Daniel Deaver. Deaver, a senior from Virginia, leads the Midshipmen in offensive rebounds. Despite playing as a forward, Deaver is an effective passer and leads Navy in assists with 40.

Last time out, sophomore guard Lysander Rehnstrom put up a career-high 13 points. The Reston, Virginia native shot 5-for-6 from the floor, as the Minutemen led by 30 or more points over the final half.

Located in Annapolis, Maryland, the U.S. Naval Academy is one of the armed service’s federal service academies. The academy was established by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft in 1845 and today enrolls 4,576 students, who have an active duty service obligation after graduation.

The academy began competing in men’s basketball in the 1907-08 season – exactly 50 years before VCU was formed. Navy has two retroactive unofficial pre-NCAA Tournament national championships recognizing the 1912-13 and 1918-19 seasons. However, the Midshipmen have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since their last Patriot League championship in 1998.

Navy’s best run in program history came in the mid-1980’s, with the addition of future Basketball Hall of Fame inductee David Robinson. While at Navy, Robinson set a Colonial Athletic Association career scoring record that still stands and received the Naismith and Wooden awards. Robinson led the program to three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths from 1985 through 1987, and later won two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs.

VCU leads the all-time series against Navy, 2-0. The last meeting came in 1980, with VCU securing an 87-67 home victory. One year before, VCU beat Navy in Annapolis in a much lower scoring 47-42 win.

For both teams, Wednesday’s game appears winnable on paper and would allow momentum to build entering conference play. ESPN Analytics gives VCU an 80% chance to win while sportsbooks roughly have VCU as a nine-point favorite.

Bring your Christmas sweaters!

Wednesday night’s game at the Siegel Center is Sweater Night at the Stu.

Fans were encouraged by VCU Athletics to wear holiday sweaters to the Siegel Center for a night that is certain to contain holiday themes throughout the building.

If you’re checking out the VCU Rams in person, be sure to bring your Christmas cheer and your ugly sweaters!

Featured photo: VCU Basketball/@VCU_Hoops