RICHMOND, Va. – It's a magical place where Virginians love to flock to during the winter months. It's exciting, action-packed and provides thrills for all ages.
No, it's not Disneyworld. It's the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center and the magic of the arena was on display once again on Wednesday night when the VCU men's basketball grinded out a hard-fought 52-48 victory over the Dragons of Drexel University.
Senior Joey Rodriguez hit a clutch three-pointer with just under a minute to play and knocked down four free-throws late to seal the 18th straight home victory for the Black & Gold. That mark ranks seventh in the country in active home winning streaks.
"There is nothing like playing in this place," Rodriguez said. "We know that these fans will always have our backs and always show us support. No matter if we're struggling or playing great, they show us the love. They're the best fans in the CAA."
Only two Rams finished in double-figures with junior Bradford Burgess and senior Brandon Rozzell finishing with 11 points each. It was not an offensive night though with VCU shooting just 29.5% from the field, but forced 23 turnovers and tied a season-high with 14 steals.
"That's the best defensive effort we have shown since I've been here," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "On a night where we didn't shoot the ball well and got outrebounded by 17, our guys locked in and focused on the things we could control. It was a tremendous effort by this group of young men."
The rebounding margin came as no surprise as the Dragons entered the night as the seventh-best rebounding team in the country averaging a margin of +12.7.
"We knew coming in that they were animals on the boards," Smart said. "But once again, we were able knock down clutch shots and our seniors really grew up and took a big step forward. This is exactly the type of game that Drexel played at Louisville and they won that game. So for us to win this game is huge for us going forward in CAA play."
A jumper by Derrick Thomas just under four minutes into the game gave the Dragons a lead that seemed like they would never relinquish. Twice the cushion reached eight in the first half, but free-throws by Rozzell just before halftime kept VCU within striking distance, 25-21, at the break.
The second half was much of the same as the Dragons' lead reached eight five different times with the final one coming after a free-throw from Samme Givens gave Drexel a 38-30 advantage.
Cue the Siegel Center magic. The Black & Gold reeled off 11 straight points, forcing seven turnovers in a five-minute span and claiming their first lead of the game, 39-38 on a Rozzell three-pointer with 8:30 to play.
Senior Jamie Skeen hit a jumper to push VCU's lead to three, but the tenacity of Drexel reared its ugly head once again with a three-pointer from Chris Fouch and two free-throws by Givens to regain a three-point advantage for the Dragons.
Rozzell then connected on the fastbreak to draw an old-fashioned three-point play and tie the game, but Fouch hit two free-throws on the other end to take a two-point lead for Drexel with 1:02 to play.
That's when Rozzell drove the lane and kicked it out to Rodriguez, who drilled a three from just off the top of the key to give the Black & Gold a lead they would never give up.
The victory was sealed on the other end, however, when senior Ed Nixon's (pictured, left) defensive effort forced Fouch to clank a three-point attempt and Skeen corralled the rebound. Drexel Head Coach Bruiser Flint was outraged with a non-foul call and was hit with back-to-back technical fouls that allowed Rodriguez to drill four straight free-throws and seal the dramatic 52-48 win.
"I'm proud of this team more than I've ever been," Rodriguez said. "Every person on this team showed a ton of heart and fight tonight, more than we ever had since Coach Smart came here. The important step is to continue to do it when we're not in this building. That's when we will grow as a team."
VCU will return to the road on Saturday evening when they travel to the always tough Trask Coliseum against the Seahawks of UNC Wilmington. Game time is set for 7 p.m.