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Ace in the hole: Baldwin dazzles in season debut as VCU defeats Jacksonville State

It came as a surprise to pretty much everyone that follows the Atlantic 10 conference closely.

When VCU released its starting lineup just before tip-off against the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks on Wednesday night, sophomore point guard Ace Baldwin was listed.

Baldwin’s return to the VCU lineup, something fans have been clamoring for during VCU’s sluggish offensive start to the season, came early.

At the end of May, VCU announced that Baldwin had suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon that necessitated surgery. The injury is particularly devastating for basketball players, with NBA All-Star players Klay Thompson and Demarcus Cousins each missing a full calendar year in recent years due to the injury.

The VCU athletics department has struck an optimistic tone with Baldwin’s injury, always saying that Baldwin was targeting a Jan. 1, 2022 return date.

Turns out, he was 24 days early.

In 19 minutes on the floor, Baldwin looked as if he had been playing the entire season. The Baltimore, Maryland native tallied 13 points and swiped six steals, tying a career-high he set in February against George Mason.

Baldwin’s contributions brought energy to the VCU offense, which had its best home performance yet at the Stuart C. Siegel Center on VCU’s campus. VCU (5-4) used a strong late run to defeat Jacksonville State (3-5), 66-52. The 14-point margin of victory is the largest for VCU this season in a regular-season game.

In addition, the 66 points scored are the most VCU has scored at home this season. The total was one shy of the 67 points VCU scored against Syracuse in the Bahamas during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last month.

After the game, VCU head coach Mike Rhoades said he was not concerned about Baldwin’s Achilles and confirmed that his cap was 20 minutes.

Baldwin’s return came four days after he participated in warm-ups before VCU’s home game against Campbell. Baldwin sat for VCU’s 65-61 win on Saturday.

If not for Baldwin’s return, the star for the VCU Rams would have certainly been breakout freshman guard Jayden Nunn. In the ninth game of his collegiate career, Nunn put up a game-high 20 points, one point shy of his career-high. The Flint, Michigan native has scored in double figures five times this season and has scored 20 or more points in two of the last three games.

Nunn’s night was among the most efficient a VCU player has had this season. The freshman shot 7-for-8 from the floor, only failing to connect on one 3-pointer. He was also a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line.

As impressive as his scoring figures were, Nunn’s night could have been even better: Twice during the game, Nunn connected on shots that were only ruled 2-pointers because his toe was on the 3-point line.

The only other Ram in double figures was senior guard KeShawn Curry, who added 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting. Fifth-year senior Levi Stockard III was the game’s leading rebounder, grabbing eight boards to go with eight points.

Following the best all-around game of his career against Campbell, Vince Williams continued to make an impact in various areas of the game despite a poor shooting night. Williams, a senior forward from Ohio, secured seven rebounds and led the team in assists with three. However, Williams turned the ball over six times, fouled out and was 1-for-8 from the floor, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.

Williams will look to return to the form he showed on Saturday against Campbell, where he filled up the stat sheet with 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five steals.

While Baldwin returned to the team, VCU played without two players due to injury. Hason Ward was held out due to a bone bruise in his ankle, while Mikeal Brown-Jones entered the concussion protocol after taking a hit in practice. Rhoades said after the game that Ward is listed as day-to-day, while Brown-Jones must clear the concussion protocol before returning to the floor.

VCU started the game hot, rocketing out to a 22-5 lead with 11:52 to go in the first half. Jacksonville State began to claw back for the rest of the half, trimming the lead to 34-30 at halftime.

The game remained close before VCU’s offense began to pick up tempo in the second half. Nunn led the charge for the Rams, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the second half.

VCU’s defense also proved to be a major part of the victory. VCU forced a season-high 23 turnovers, including six in the first five minutes of the second half.

VCU’s defense locked down the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, senior guard Darian Adams. The Alabama native, who averages a team-leading 15.1 points per game, scored two points and shot the ball just three times before fouling out of the game late.

Jacksonville State was led offensively Wednesday night by senior guard Jalen Gibbs. Gibbs made three 3-pointers on his way to a team-leading 12 points. Sophomore Jay Pal added 11 points and four rebounds of his own, the only other Jacksonville State player to hit double figures.

Jacksonville State was held to 5-for-18 shooting from beyond the arc, a credit to VCU’s gameplan. The Gamecocks entered the day ranked sixth in the country in team 3-point percentage, making 42.7% of their 3-pointers entering tonight.

Following a successful two-game homestand, VCU will take the two-hour trip down Interstate 64 to Norfolk to renew the rivalry against the Old Dominion University Monarchs. The teams have officially played since VCU was formally created by the Virginia General Assembly in 1968, although the rivalry dates back to VCU’s predecessor institution, the Richmond Professional Institute.

In fact, the highest-scoring individual performance in VCU’s record book predates VCU and the formal VCU-ODU rivalry. RPI Green Devil Donald Ross Jr. scored 55 points on Feb. 14, 1968, against Old Dominion.

Since 1968, VCU holds a 52-44 lead in the all-time series. The Rams have won five of the last six meetings, although ODU won the last time the Rams made the trip to the Ted Constant Center in Norfolk in 2018.

ODU enters the game with a 5-5 record, coming off double-digit victories against in-state rivals George Mason and William & Mary. The Monarchs are returning home after a three-game road trip where the only blemish was a 63-62 loss to East Carolina on Nov. 30.

The 97th edition of the VCU-ODU rivalry will tip off at 8 p.m. on Saturday from the Ted Constant Center in Norfolk.