RICHMOND, Va. – Championship teams show the ability to win games no matter what style of play takes over the tempo of the game.
It's only been two games and the Virginia Commonwealth University has already shown flashes of that ability after winning a defensive-minded, physical battle with Big South power Winthrop, 67-54, in the first round of the Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off at Wake Forest on Monday evening.
"We came in focused on the defensive end for a reason and that showed tonight," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "Our guys were extremely inspired to be more physical and tough than Winthrop was tonight and for the majority of the night, that's what happened."
"It was exactly the game we expected out of Winthrop," Rodriguez said. "We knew they would try to beat us up physical and take us out of our game, but we were determined to win no matter what type of game was being played."
The determination on the defensive end was evident from the start. With the Eagles leading 7-5, the Black & Gold put together 10 consecutive stops, which led to a 20-2 run, capped off by three consecutive three-pointers from Rodriguez, Rozzell and classmate Ed Nixon.
As expected, Winthrop wouldn't go away, forcing the Rams into five turnovers over the final five minutes of the first half and Gideon Gamble poured in eight points to cut the lead to 29-25 heading into halftime.
"At halftime, I got into some guys about rebounding and really locking in, but most of all, I wanted our leaders to step up and be vocal," Smart said. "That's exactly what happened with guys like Ed and Brandon really stressing what we needed to do in the second half."
VCU would start to get in a rhythm from beyond the arc in the second half, knocking down 7-of-10 from long distance, led by three from Rodriguez to hold a double-digit advantage for the majority of the second half.
"I was pleased with the shots we were getting in the first half, but they just weren't falling," Smart said. "Sometimes it takes a little time to get into a feel for the gym and I think that might have happened for our guys. It was really everyone, if you look at the boxscore, nearly 75 percent of the guys that played hit a three."
Winthrop would try to make a late push, but could only get the lead down to 11 as the Rams continued to play stifling half-court defense, holding the Eagles to just 35.6% from the field and leading scorer Reggie Middleton to just six points.
The Rams now take on ACC foe Wake Forest on its home court with an invite to Madison Square Garden on the line. Game time at Lawrence Joel Coliseum is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening.