By Chris Kowalczyk
WILMINGTON, N.C. – Shaka Smart had a feeling about Brandon Rozzell before this one. You see, the book on Rozzell is, great player at home, struggles on the road. But Smart felt like Saturday's game at UNC Wilmington's Trask Coliseum was going to be different.
"About 36 hours ago I started talking to him about Saint Louis. As you know, in Saint Louis last year he had 27 points. I told him, 'Brandon, I've got a feeling this is going to be like Saint Louis. Bring a Saint Louis-like energy and a Saint Louis-like focus.'"
Rozzell struggled mightily on the road last season as well, but summoned a career-best 27-point assault in VCU's 71-65 triumph at Saint Louis' Chaifetz Arena in the championship of the College Basketball Invitational.
Saturday, Smart couldn't have been more right, as Rozzell pumped in 22 points, including six 3-pointers, to ignite an 82-64 VCU rout of upstart UNC Wilmington in potentially the Rams' most complete performance of the season.
There must have been something in the air because it wasn't just Smart that thought Rozzell would have a big night. In the hours leading up to Saturday's contest, Rozzell's teammates got into his ear in hopes of lighting a spark.
"My teammates told me to have the same confidence I have at home and today," Rozzell said. "There was more talking about it than anything else because we're trying to run off some wins here and we're going to need me on the road to do so."
VCU (11-5, 3-1 CAA) and Rozzell, each with well documented road woes, assembled outstanding performances by any level of measure. VCU, just 1-4 in true road games this season prior to Saturday, shot 51 percent (27-of-53) from the field, 82 percent (18-of-22) from the line and outrebounded the Seahawks 36-34. VCU entered the game with the worst rebounding margin (-5.9) in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Rams had been outrebounded in 11 of their first 15 games this year.
Rozzell, meanwhile, was averaging 15.6 points at home and 10.1 points on the road this year. But he looked quite comfortable Saturday, perhaps ready to even put his feet up on the coffee table, at Trask. Rozzell pumped in 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, including 4-of-5 in the second half.
In reality, it was the type of win this club has desperately needed. Leading 37-32 at the half, the Rams bludgeoned UNCW (8-7, 2-2 CAA) into submission driving to the basket and by pounding the ball inside to Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess in the second period.
"They took us off the dribble. They took it and rammed it down our throat," said first year Seahawks' Head Coach Buzz Peterson.
VCU has had difficulty holding leads the last two seasons, including a recent late-game collapse at UAB in which the Rams failed to hold a nine-point advantage with two minutes remaining. But when the Rams were pushed against the ropes on Saturday, instead of folding, they punched back.
"I think this is the best game this year where we finished somebody off," Rozzell said. "We never let off the gas."
The Rams looked sharp early, forcing four turnovers while exploding to a 13-2 lead in the first four minutes. But Wilmington charged back to take a 24-21 advantage with 5:31 left in the period. After starting the game on the highest of notes, the Seahawks had come roaring back while the crowd of 5,126 began to reach a frenzied state.
Undaunted, VCU settled back into its game plan and began using its quickness to drive into the lane. Burgess, Rozzell and Darius Theus all converted two free throws after drives during one four-possession sequence. Moments later, Rozzell bombed a 3-pointer to push VCU to a 32-26 lead. The Rams never trailed again.
UNCW's Chad Tomko opened the second half with a 3-pointer to trim the VCU lead to 37-35. But moments later, with the score 39-37, the Rams embarked on a 13-4 burst behind a pair of Rozzell 3-pointers. Rozzell would later bury his final triple with 6:13 left to extend the Rams' lead to as much as 21 at 71-50.
Four players scored in double figures for the Rams, including Skeen (15 points, seven rebounds), Burgess (14 points, eight rebounds) and Ed Nixon (12 points, four steals).
"I thought today was one of our better games in pregame, emotionally, as far as guys just being excited and ready to play and everybody just believing in everybody," Rozzell said.
Chad Tomko led UNCW with 17 points and nine rebounds, but couldn't lead the Seahawks back in the second half.
"Every time we did something the countered," Tomko said.