“Get on your dancing shoes
There’s one thing on your mind…”
For the second time since joining the Atlantic 10 conference, the No. 1 VCU Rams (27-7, 18-3 A-10) are A-10 conference champions.
The Rams sewed up the title at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York on Sunday afternoon in a hard-fought 68-56 win over the No. 2 Dayton Flyers (22-12, 14-7 A-10) and former VCU head coach Anthony Grant.
For VCU, the win secured the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament and sent the Rams to March Madness for the 19th time in program history. Head coach Mike Rhoades has now made the tournament three times in five opportunities at VCU (the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Securing the automatic bid proved to be crucial for VCU – because of an overall down year in the conference, the A-10 ultimately only earned one bid as a conference for the first time since 2005.
VCU does not have to travel far for its opening round game. Seeded as the No. 12 team in the west region, the Rams will take on the No. 5 Saint Mary’s Gaels at 2 p.m. Friday in Albany, New York.
The title game began as everything fans of the conference could have hoped for – a back-and-forth affair showcasing the two best teams the conference had to offer this season.
Led by sophomore and All-A-10 First Team honoree DaRon Holmes II and redshirt-sophomore Mustapha Amzil, the Flyers ended the first half with momentum and a 36-30 lead over the Rams. Holmes and Amzil combined for 29 first-half points while Dayton’s defense held the Rams to 36% shooting in the opening 20 minutes.
The script was flipped in the second half.
Dayton came out firing in the opening minute of the half, using a 5-0 burst to push the lead to 41-30 with 18:59 to play.
From there, the Rams ended the game on an extended 38-15 run.
Sophomore Nick Kern got the rally going with an alley-oop dunk with an assist by Nunn, before Kern made a driving layup 70 seconds later. A pair of 3-pointers from Brandon Johns Jr. and Nunn and a steal by Jalen DeLoach swung the momentum VCU’s way, trimming the lead to three by the time the half’s first media timeout came.
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) March 12, 2023
The game remained within one possession for the next few minutes, with the Rams and Flyers trading the lead back-and-forth. For the game, the Rams and Flyers swapped the lead 13 total times.
With just over 10 minutes to play in the half, Holmes made a desperation 3-pointer as the shot clock was expiring to give the Flyers a 50-49 lead. The 3-pointer, among the most memorable plays of the game, was Holmes’ first since Jan. 28.
HOLY BALLS DARON HOLMES pic.twitter.com/EXECC2X8nr
— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) March 12, 2023
The 3-pointer was also the last basket the Flyers would make this season.
For the remainder of the game, Dayton went 0-of-15, scoring only six points via free throws. The VCU defense smothered the Flyers in the second frame, holding them to just two points in the final 6:40 and to a 20% second-half field goal percentage. The Holmes 3-pointer was the only one the Flyers made from deep in the second half, missing 12 other times.
The Rams offense came out firing, flipping the script to the tune of 55.6% from the floor and from deep in the frame. VCU kept the ball hot throughout the half, with assists on 12 of 15 made field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes.
VCU took the lead for good with 9:39 to play in the game after DeLoach made a second-chance layup.
After trailing by 11 early in the half, VCU sealed the game with an Ace Baldwin free throw at the end of the game to secure a 12-point victory.
Baldwin, the A-10 Player of the Year, led the Rams with 14 points and six assists. DeLoach tallied a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Jamir Watkins joined the pair in double figures with 13 points and eight rebounds.
Holmes and Amzil combined for 45 points, with 28 and 17 respectively. Holmes, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds and had five blocks in the losing effort.
The VCU celebration was jubilant, led by an excited Rhoades as he cut the nets down at the Barclays Center.
VCU HC Mike Rhodes takes down the net! 9 straight wins entering March Madness.
Rams will be a DANGEROUS double digit seed 👀🐏 pic.twitter.com/AKFLc4xhr5
— Michael Bergman (@MLBergman_) March 12, 2023
After the game, Rhoades echoed his excitement for the team’s in-season turnaround to CBS’ Evan Washburn.
“We were 5-4 and everyone counted us out. How do you like us now?” Rhoades exclaimed.
Washburn also spoke to Baldwin after the game, who was optimistic about VCU’s prospects in the NCAA tournament.
“We are a type of team that’s going to make a run,” Baldwin said. “We [aren’t] scared of nobody. We [are] prepared for anybody.”
Notably, the A-10 title game took place three years to the day of the cancellation of the 2020 A-10 tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On that day, VCU and Massachusetts were warming up for the game between the 8th and 9th-seeded teams in the second round and were pulled off the floor with less than a minute before opening ceremonies.
VCU Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin noted the anniversary on Twitter.
Three years ago today, we got pulled off the floor at @A10MBB Tournament as COVID shut down the world and ended our season. Three years later, we walked off the floor at @barclayscenter as the Champs.
Thank you to everyone who never lost faith. 🖤💛🖤💛 #UNlimited #LetsGoVCU
— Ed McLaughlin (@GoVCURamsAD) March 13, 2023
One year later, VCU earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed, and was slated to play No. 7 Oregon before COVID-19 issues within VCU forced the Rams to forfeit. To date, the 2021 VCU Rams are the only team in the history of the NCAA tournament to forfeit a game, and were the only team affected by COVID protocols during the 2021 tournament.
After Sunday’s win, Rhoades spoke about that forfeit with Washburn.
“One of our core values is appreciation,” Rhoades began. “When we lost that opportunity in the bubble to play an NCAA game, we can never get that back. I just tell these guys to appreciate every moment you have because we went through it. This isn’t a given, so let’s appreciate it.”
On Sunday, the Rams certainly appreciated the conference title.
— Atlantic 10 MBB (@A10MBB) March 12, 2023
THE VCU BAND PLAYED FETTY WAP WHILE THE TEAM WAS CUTTING DOWN THE NETS AFTER WINNING THE TOURNAMENT AND THE TEAM WAS LOVING IT
IM PICKING THEM TO WIN THE FINAL FOUR pic.twitter.com/VY1hLCZwT6
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 12, 2023
🏆 @VCU_Hoops 2023 ATLANTIC 10 CHAMPIONS 🏆
Ace Baldwin Jr (@yeah_ace3 )
15 PTS, 7 AST. A10 Tourney MOP
Certainly a Top 5 PG 😁
A10 TEAM OF THE YEAR
THE RAMS ARE GOING DANCING 🐏🕺 pic.twitter.com/M0FNRGzpaW
— A10 Talk (@A10Talk) March 12, 2023
On the other end of the spectrum, Dayton appeared to have some chance at a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, but decided to end its season and forego any postseason opportunity.
Dayton's season is over. I just received this statement from UD in my inbox. pic.twitter.com/KwD86rMmPB
— David Jablonski (@DavidPJablonski) March 13, 2023
Ballin’ like March Madness
- As a No. 12 seed, VCU faces its lowest seed since the 2012 tournament, where it eliminated No. 5 Wichita State before losing 63-61 to No. 4 Indiana.
- The last time VCU won an NCAA tournament game was 2016, when the No. 10 Rams defeated No. 7 Oregon State. In the second round, VCU lost to No. 2 Oklahoma 85-81.
- Rhoades is still in search of his first NCAA tournament win. Aside from the 2021 forfeit, Rhoades’ only other NCAA tournament experience came in 2019, when No. 8 VCU lost to No. 9 UCF 73-58.
- Friday’s game against Saint Mary’s is a rematch of the opening round of the 2017 NCAA tournament, when No. 10 VCU lost 85-77 to No. 7 Saint Mary’s. The game was the last for then-head coach Will Wade before he departed to take the job at LSU. Rhoades was hired later that week and has been at the helm at VCU ever since.
- With Sunday’s win, VCU has now won 27 games this season. That is the most wins by a VCU team in a season since 2012-13, when then-head coach Shaka Smart led the Rams to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Featured image: Hunter Hensel/A10 Talk