It was a surprisingly close and physical first half at the Siegel Center on Saturday night, which saw 20-point favorite VCU lead Morgan State by just one point when the teams broke for halftime.
But the Rams kicked on the afterburners in the second half, finding an offensive rhythm to outscore Morgan State 41-27 and secure a 69-54 victory.
The VCU Rams keep their brief-but-perfect season alive at 2-0, while Morgan State, picked to finish fourth in the preseason Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference poll, fell to 1-2.
Transfers come up big
Three of VCU’s four highest-scoring players were on different teams this time last season.
Brandon Johns Jr., who transferred from Michigan this past offseason, led all scorers with 15 points on 60% shooting. The graduate student made impact plays throughout the game while securing four rebounds, split evenly between offensive and defensive.
Johns continued to make a great impact even after sustaining a lower body injury late in the first half. The Michigan native refused to exit the game, riding the stationary bike on the bench and staying loose while playing with a limp that got noticeably worse as the game wore on. Ultimately, Johns played 27 minutes, fourth-most among his teammates.
Zeb Jackson, who along with Johns transferred from Michigan, showed his impact off the bench despite playing just 13 minutes. The junior guard scored nine points on 3-for-4 shooting. Despite the limited role, Jackson showed the strength at guard of this VCU roster while perfectly playing his role as one of the leaders of the bench unit.
Fifth-year senior David Shriver, a 3-point specialist who transferred from Hartford, recorded 11 points on three made 3-pointers. Shriver, who was brought in to improve VCU’s struggling 3-point offense, took seven of his eight shots from deep.
Shriver also showed the versatility of his game, recording eight rebounds on the night. Crucially, all eight of his rebounds were defensive, helping to ensure VCU maximized possession of the ball.
With approximately three minutes remaining in the game, Shriver appeared to sustain an ankle injury after landing awkwardly on a 3-point attempt. Shriver did not go to the locker room following the injury, but rode the stationary bike on the bench and did not re-enter the game.
Despite a sluggish start offensively, junior guard Ace Baldwin showed why he has become a fan-favorite at VCU.
The Baltimore native shined against Baltimore-based Morgan State, tallying a career-high-tying seven steals. Baldwin’s efforts served as an early statement to back up his selection to the preseason Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team.
Baldwin also led the team in minutes played with 36, matched Jackson with nine points and led the team with five assists.
As such, Baldwin’s fantastic game showed what many in the conference already know: VCU’s A-10 title and NCAA Tournament bid hopes ride on the ability of Baldwin to run the offense.
Free throw troubles
VCU’s good night could not fully cover a glaring issue on the offensive end: numerous empty trips from the free throw line.
The Rams shot 14-for-25 from the charity stripe Saturday night – a 56% rate buoyed by improvement at the line in the second half of the game. At one point in the first half, the team’s free throw percentage flirted with 40%.
Seven VCU players went to the line Saturday night – five of them missing at least once. This included multiple “one-and-one” opportunities, which denied VCU the chance at another free throw.
Saturday night’s performance continues a troubling trend from VCU’s Monday night 73-56 win against Manhattan. On that night, VCU shot a slightly better 19-for-33, good for a 57.6% make rate.
When totaled, VCU is 33-for-58 from the charity stripe this season, a 56.8% make rate that puts VCU not only at the bottom of the A-10, but among the nation’s worst free throw-shooting teams.
For head coach Mike Rhoades, it is crucial to correct this error before the Rams face tighter games where missed free throws can mean the difference between a key win or a crushing loss.
Saturday night’s game against Morgan State marked a return to the Siegel Center for a former VCU player.
Graduate student Lewis Djonkam started for the Bears, recording four points, one rebound and one steal in 23 minutes of action. Djonkam, who recorded no counting stats during the first half, made his impact known beyond the stat sheet in setting screens and in positioning on the floor.
Djonkam played for VCU during the 2017-18 season as a freshman, the first year Rhoades served as VCU’s head coach. In 20 games played, Djonkam average 3.5 minutes per game and scored 14 total points on 4-for-11 shooting.
Since leaving VCU, Djonkam took a redshirt season before playing three years at Radford, including two as a starter. The best statistical season of his career so far was the 2020-21 season, where the Springfield, Virginia native averaged 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
A note about Morgan State
Morgan State played a near-perfect first half, matching VCU’s physicality and always keeping the Rams within two possessions. The Bears led briefly early in the second half before a couple of long VCU runs put the Rams permanently out front.
Senior guard Isaiah Burke led the Bears with 12 points, while junior Khalil Turner and senior Malik Miller tallied 11 and 10 points, respectively. Will Thomas, who led Morgan State in scoring through its first two games, was held to four points on three field goal attempts, partially due to foul trouble.
Miller, a preseason All-MEAC Second Team selection, recorded a double-double with a game-high 11 rebounds. The Washington, D.C., native further stuffed the stat sheet, leading his team in assists with five while adding three steals to his night.
The loss comes two days after a 130-point offensive explosion against Division III school Penn State Greater Allegheny in Morgan State’s “orange out” home opener. Morgan State’s only other game was the season-opener Monday night against Xavier, which saw the Bears fall 96-73.
Up next: Legends Classic
VCU’s next two games will be neutral site contests at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The venue has become familiar for the Rams, who sealed its only A-10 Tournament championship in 2015 at the arena.
While the stakes are lower next week, the games will serve as VCU’s first test against Power 5 competition, with a pair of games in the Legends Classic.
VCU will open the multi-team event on Wednesday night against Arizona State, which is also 2-0 on the young season. Depending on the outcome of the games, VCU will take on either Michigan or Pittsburgh the following day. Michigan is 2-0 on the season, while Pittsburgh is 1-1 following a loss to West Virginia.
Photo: Jason Boleman/A10Talk