Friday, July 21, 2017

Ram Nation returns to TBT quarterfinals with commanding win

Jamie Skeen's dominance led to a 42-18 demolition in paint as Ram Nation advanced to South Region championship of The Basketball Tournament. (Photo by The Basketball Tournament)

BROOKLYN -- VCU has built a devoted following in the years following their Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2011, particularly in New York, where the Rams have made regular visits on an annual basis since joining the Atlantic 10 Conference.

With a quasi-home crowd accompanying Ram Nation, the VCU alumni entry into The Basketball Tournament, the prevailing opinion was that not only would there be a largely black and gold-clad crowd, but also that the team fighting for a $2 million winner-take-all purse would feed off the fan advantage.

As it turned out, logic; coupled with athleticism and VCU's trademark fast-paced transition style, prevailed as Ram Nation, the No. 2 seed in the South Region, scored a 79-64 victory over NC Prodigal Sons to advance to the regional final Sunday afternoon.

"It was just the energy, the communication," said head coach Joey Rodriguez; the point guard who led VCU on their storybook national semifinal run six years ago and made then-head coach Shaka Smart a household name, on the biggest key to victory in a matchup where Ram Nation commanded the interior to the tune of a 42-18 margin on points in the paint. "We talked about it at halftime. We gave up too many threes, and these guys are vets, they're pros. I knew they were competitive, and once I told them to hit their threes, they really picked it up and started communicating."

Ram Nation's ball sharing helped offset a first half where the 14th-seeded Prodigal Sons put a scare into the crowd favorites through an 8-of-16 display from three-point range in the opening stanza, as the VCU alumni connected for 23 assists on 31 made field goals. Eric Maynor, whose famous dagger propelled the Rams to victory over Duke in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, led the way with eight helpers to complement three double-figure scorers, paced in that category by Reggie Williams' 14 points.

Jamie Skeen, a central figure on the 2011 team, established a dominant tone down low early and often, scoring seven of Ram Nation's first nine points and finishing with 13 overall while playing alongside NBA journeyman Larry Sanders. Jamal Shuler added 10 points off the bench as Ram Nation seized control of a tight game with a 15-2 run late in the second half that whipped the fans into a frenzy of "V-C-U" chants throughout the game's final minutes.

Now three wins away from the ultimate prize, Ram Nation is back in action Sunday, where they will face either two-time reigning TBT champions Overseas Elite; who eliminated them in last year's quarterfinals, or the Tampa Bulls, a team of alumni from the University of South Florida. Regardless of whom they face, one thing is certain, that being the advantage of fan support in their favor.

"Our VCU fans travel everywhere, especially here," said Rodriguez, who competed in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off against Tennessee and UCLA as a senior in November of 2010. "When we came to play in the NIT, it was a big deal. We had a huge following, and even after that with the new guys that are here, every A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, we always have a good crowd. It's fun to play in front of them."

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