By Chris Kowalczyk
NORFOLK, Va. – Speed kills, or at least that's what the old adage says. I guess it depends on your perspective.
VCU and Old Dominion showcased both sides of that coin Saturday, when the Rams used their full court press to control the pace take the Monarchs out of their comfort zone in a 59-50 win before a frenzied sellout crowd 8,457 of Ted Constant Center.
The Rams' victory sent shockwaves through the Colonial Athletic Association race, which got a whole lot more interesting. The Rams, picked third in the CAA preseason poll, are now tied with Hofstra (picked fifth) atop the league with identical 7-1 records. Old Dominion, the preseason No. 1 and defending champion, slipped to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in league action.
A month ago, the Rams had the stigma of a team that couldn't rebound, couldn't defend, couldn't hold leads down the stretch. It's amazing how much difference a month can make.
VCU has won six straight games, three of them on the road - including Saturday against an ODU team that was 22-1 at home the last two seasons. During that stretch, the Rams have allowed an average of 55.3 points.
On Saturday, VCU used just the right blend of "Havoc", the Rams' full court pressure and up-tempo offense, as well as hard-nosed rebounding, defense and clutch shooting to win at the Constant Center for the first time since 2008.
VCU forced nine first-half turnovers and 14 in the game as a whole. Those turnovers led to 15 points (compared to just six ODU points off turnovers). When the Rams weren't turning the Monarchs over, they were speeding up the famously deliberate ODU offense. Old Dominion shot just 33 percent in the second half (9-of-27) and 39 percent for the game.
"We knew [the press] was coming. We just rushed," said ODU's Kent Bazemore. "We just didn't play our style."
On paper, this game pitted the best rebounding team in the conference (Old Dominion) against the worst (VCU). But the Rams held firm, outrebounding the Monarchs 19-16 in the first half. ODU had been outrebounding its opponents by an average of more than 11 a game, but finished with just four more (35-31) then the Rams in the game.
"We have a drill called Ram Rebounding. It's just guys running in and pushing the defense in the back it's just a big battle. It gets intense," said junior Bradford Burgess, who led VCU with 15 points. "That's pretty much what we've been doing every day, preparing for these guys because they're one of the best rebounding teams in the country."
"I'm guessing their coach took a real emphasis on rebounding. They were boxing out and hitting us before we hit them," ODU forward Frank Hassell said. "They weren't surprised by our length and our strength. They were ready."
Senior Jamie Skeen grabbed 10 rebounds for VCU, but the Rams also got major contributions from freshmen D.J. Haley and Juvonte Reddic, sophomore David Hinton and junior Toby Veal, four under-the-radar players. VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart, aware of ODU's reputation as a big, bruising team down low, rotated his post player liberally to keep them fresh, especially against Hassell, ODU's leading scorer and rebounder. Hassell finished with six points and seven rebounds.
"I felt like every time I turned around, there was a new face guarding me," said Hassell. "I couldn't get touches as deep as I wanted to and on the rebounds I couldn't get to the spots I wanted to."
The Rams set the tone early, forcing four Old Dominion turnovers in the first 2:26. Following a Burgess 3-pointer and a dunk by Skeen, VCU was sitting with a 9-2 lead at the 16:04 mark. VCU eventually parlayed that into a 31-27 halftime advantage.
In the second half the lead changed four times, the last when the Rams' senior Ed Nixon drove and scored with 5:46 remaining to give VCU a 47-46 edge. With 1:56 showing, senior Joey Rodriguez drilled a 3-pointer to push the Rams to an insurmountable 55-50 lead. Rodriguez, was 0-of-3 in the game before that shot, but showed the type of big-play ability for which he has become known.
With about 10 minutes left, Smart, hoping to preserve his team's legs, pulled off the full court press to focus on man-to-man halfcourt defense. The move worked, as Old Dominion missed its last six shots.
"We just had to grit our teeth," Smart said.
On the evening, VCU received 51 of its 59 points from upperclassmen, a welcome development for a team playing in the most hostile of environments.
"Our young guys were jittery before the game," Smart said. "And it was going to take our older guys to calm them down. I though they did a good job of this. Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess, Ed Nixon, they've been through these games time and time again, so it wasn't that fear that nervousness that our younger guys had…we're going to go as far as our upperclassmen take us."