Heading into their Tuesday night matchup, both Fordham and VCU were on the brink of a highly coveted annual Atlantic 10 achievement; the right to be this year’s “Top Rams” in the conference, as both teams had previously recorded wins over Rhode Island this season. For Fordham, this would be the first time since 2016-17 that they claimed the title. For VCU, the first time since 2015-16. While this title chase probably matters way more to the fans than it does to the players or coaching staff, a win for both of these teams was much needed in this year’s Atlantic 10.
Right from tip-off, VCU had Fordham fighting an uphill battle, scoring the opening bucket of the game and moving immediately in to a full-court press, with as much as four VCU players starting a defensive possession in the backcourt. Even with two forwards in the rotation as usual, Fordham had a lot of trouble getting the ball up the court, and when they did finally get it over the line, continued VCU pressure often saw Fordham not getting shots up until the last few seconds before the shot clock expired. Most of Fordham’s early buckets came from put backs by Abdou Tsimbila or fast transition layups from Josh Colon-Navarro, but even those were few and far between.
Offensively, VCU matched their defensive pressure by just rushing through Fordham, with guys like Vince Williams leading the way for VCU in transition. VCU’s off-ball movement on offense was also impeccable. Their fluidity with the pick-and-roll, throwing multiple screens at Fordham in one possession sometimes, gave them plenty of room to build a sizable lead using mainly inside layups and mid-range shots. VCU would shoot just 3-4 beyond the arc in the first half.
According to Coach Neptune, this physicality, while expected, posed the greatest challenge for Fordham.
“They jumped on us,” Neptune said. “It’s hard to mimic that speed and athleticism no matter what you do; in transition, in practice, it doesn’t quite do it justice.”
While Fordham continued to push, there was little they could do against a team that was simply stronger and faster, even after VCU’s Hason Ward went down with an apparent knee injury midway through the first. Ward would not return for the rest of the game.
As Fordham scrambled to regain some footing in this game, VCU continued to pick them apart and force turnovers. In the first half alone, Fordham committed 15 turnovers. Even as Fordham improved defensively, giving up the ball that many times simply gave Fordham little time to climb out of a 14-point deficit.
“I think their best offense was their defense,” Neptune said.
Coming out in the second half, it was clear that Fordham was more equipped to handle VCU’s pressure, though they still seemed a bit outmatched. Kyle Rose began the half defensively for Fordham with a huge block on Jayden Nunn. As Fordham continued to try and limit guys like Ace Baldwin and Vince Williams, guys like Zach Riley brought a new wave of defensive pressure, helping force a shot clock violation on VCU midway through the first.
A major defensive highlight for Fordham was Josh Colon-Navarro. Already a pretty scrappy player, Navarro excelled in the physical environment VCU brought to the Rose Hill Gym, limiting star guard Ace Baldwin to just 4 points the entire game, and scoring 20 himself. Coach Neptune was unaware at first that Baldwin had scored just 4 points, but unsurprised considering who had guarded him.
“Josh is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, especially when he’s picking guys full court,” Neptune said. “I thought he did a good job at staying with him, and pressuring him.”
With a late 11-2 rally, largely fueled by huge stops, Fordham was down by just five with around two minutes left in the game. However, VCU was able to maintain control by bringing the game to the free throw line, cementing a 66-61 victory.
As Fordham falls to 4-8 in conference play, they’ll continue their homestand for three more games, starting with George Mason on Sunday. Darius Quisenberry, who missed his second consecutive game with an injury sustained against St. Bonaventure, will continue to be day-to-day.