All that stood between the VCU Rams and a seventh win before Christmas on Tuesday night was, ironically, James Madison University forward Michael Christmas.
Despite a less-than-stellar first half offensively, the Rams found themselves with a double-digit advantage for the duration of the first half. That is, until a 9-0 run by the Dukes trimmed the deficit to 77-74 with 1:34 to play.
Christmas, a sophomore from Virginia Beach, Virginia, spearheaded the run with a 3-pointer and added a layup of his own to spur the Dukes’ offense. The sophomore forward would end the game with 15 points.
On the ensuing VCU possession, Bones Hyland missed a 3-pointer, but was bailed out by a Corey Douglas offensive rebound. Junior forward Vince Williams then drained a contested, stepback jumper from the left elbow with 41 seconds to go. Williams’ jumper would push the VCU advantage to five points.
More crucially, VCU gained a two-possession lead that it would never relinquish. A last-second foul on a missed 3-pointer cut the deficit to one point, but VCU was able to hold on and secure an 82-81 victory.
Leading the way for VCU was Williams, who scored a team-high 15 points and corralled eight rebounds. Williams also tallied three steals and three assists in 33 minutes of action.
Hyland continued his hot start to the season, scoring 15 points. However, Hyland had a below-average night from deep, connecting only once from 3-point range. Hyland was whistled for four fouls in the game, including a technical in the first half.
Tuesday also marked the return of KeShawn Curry to the VCU lineup. Curry has been out since suffering a shoulder injury on Dec. 2 in the loss to Penn State. In his return off the bench, Curry tallied 13 points in all manners of ways. Curry also had a key chase down block late in the game on the defensive end.
VCU also saw impact performances from a pair of freshmen. Starting point guard Ace Baldwin dished out a career-high 10 assists while reigning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week Jamir Watkins shot 50 % from 3-point range on his way to nine points. Baldwin’s 10 assists are the most by a VCU player since Samir Doughty tallied 10 assists against Saint Joseph’s on Feb. 14, 2017.
The Dukes did not go away quietly. Despite trailing by double-digits for much of the evening, the game never felt out of reach for James Madison, and they were able to capitalize late to put the game within one possession. James Madison shot better percentages from the floor and from deep in this game.
Aside from Christmas, Matt Lewis led the charge for the Dukes with a game-high 21 points. A senior guard from Woodbridge, Virginia, Lewis has scored over 20 points in half of James Madison’s games this season.
Despite allowing a season-high 81 points, VCU’s defense continued to shine on Tuesday. VCU won the turnover battle, albeit by an 18-17 margin, and led JMU in points off turnovers.
Tuesday’s game was scheduled less than 72 hours in advance due to both teams losing their previously scheduled Tuesday games. VCU’s game with LSU was canceled due to COVID-19 issues in the LSU program, while JMU’s scheduled matchup with Florida was postponed in the aftermath of the collapse of star player Keyontae Johnson on Dec. 12. Johnson, a Norfolk, Virginia native, was released from the hospital on Tuesday.
The matchup was the 66th meeting between the schools, and the first since VCU left the Colonial Athletic Association in 2012. VCU now leads the all-time series 45-21.
With the win, VCU ends the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 7-2 record. The Rams will take a week off for Christmas before moving into A10 conference play against Saint Joseph’s on Dec. 30.
VCU head coach Mike Rhoades emphasized in his post-game press conference that he wants his team to take advantage of the break.
“I want them in the next two days to get away from it,” Rhoades said. “They’ve been through a lot since March and they haven’t had many breaks. I just want them to be normal kids around Christmastime.”
Rhoades followed by emphasizing that VCU will “ramp it up here on the 26th.”
Featured photo from Twitter/@VCU_Hoops