By Chris Kowalczyk
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – On Wednesday afternoon, VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart was wondering who would fill Brandon Rozzell's shoes. By the time 9:00 p.m. rolled around, he looked like a man who might've found an answer.
Freshman Rob Brandenberg scored a career-high 22 points Wednesday night, 19 of them in the second half, to lead the Rams to a convincing, 70-52 road victory over William & Mary.
"He's pretty good," Tribe Head Coach Tony Shaver said modestly after the game. "That a sign of a good basketball team."
Rozzell, VCU's sixth man and third-leading scorer, broke his shooting hand during Tuesday's practice when he collided with a teammate. Smart said he told his players before Wednesday's game that they'd have to step up to fill the void. Apparently, Brandenberg heard the message loud and clear.
Displaying impressive athleticism and a repertoire of long-range shots, drives and pull-up jumpers, Brandenberg helped the Rams stave off comeback-minded William & Mary (4-12, 0-5 CAA).
VCU (12-5, 4-1 CAA) led 29-20 at the half, but the Tribe pulled within 35-32 with 15:51 left in the second on a layup by Quinn McDowell. Coming out of a timeout, Brandenberg led a 12-2 burst with 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. The Tribe never got within eight the rest of the way. Later in the half, Brandenberg scored eight straight points to drive the final nail in William & Mary's coffin.
"When the injury happened, the only guy I felt really bad for was Brandon," Smart said. "I told the guys that they need to step up, no excuses. We're not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves."
If you squinted, you could have convinced yourself it was really Rozzell out there instead of Brandenberg.
"Rob did a really good Brandon Rozzell impersonation," Smart joked.
Brandenberg's 22 points are the most by a VCU freshman since Dom Jones poured in 23 points on SMU on Dec. 21, 2000.
"It feels good. I'm just happy we got the win," Brandenberg said. "I just had the mindset that I wanted to come into the game with great energy and enthusiasm. It wasn't that I said to myself that I've got to go out and score 20 points or anything like that."
Throughout the course of the season, Brandenberg had shown flashes of brilliance. There was the occasional 3-pointer, perhaps a timely steal or maybe even a crucial tip-in, but never a performance as complete as Wednesday's.
Brandenberg knocked down 9-of-13 shots in the game, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range in a season-high 23 minutes. It couldn't have come at a better time too, as the Rams three starting guards combined to shoot 5-of-24.
Prior to Wednesday's contest, Brandenberg was averaging 4.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in 12.3 minutes per game.
Not to be overlooked among VCU's guards, senior Ed Nixon helped hold William & Mary leading scorer Quinn McDowell to 10 points. In addition, sophomore Darius Theus added seven points, six assist, five steals and two blocked shots, while classmate Troy Daniels knocked down a pair of 3-pointers.
But on this night, Brandenberg was the star, leading a resurgent VCU team in need of a boost after the loss of one of its senior captains. The Rams have now won three straight and are headed back to the friendly confines of the Siegel Center for a pair of CAA games.
Rozzell will have surgery and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks, but if Brandenberg can continue to deliver as he did Wednesday, Smart and the Rams will sleep much easier.
"These two guys," Smart said of Theus and Brandenberg. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. These guys are just scratching the surface. But what they need to do now is not get too high. They need to say hungry and they've got to do it again."