HARRISONBURG, Va. – Since his arrival at VCU last April, Head Coach Shaka Smart has spoke over and over again about the importance of leadership and how much of a role it plays in the success of a team.
Smart had to be pleased with exactly that trait on Saturday afternoon as the upperclassmen of the Black & Gold scored 54 of VCU's 70 points in a gritty, tough win against James Madison, 70-66, in front of a raucous crowd at the JMU Convocation Center.
"I'm so proud of this team and their ability to continue to stick together in hostile environments and win gritty games like today," Smart said. "JMU is an extremely talented team that can score from every position. We really challenged our guys to come out and defend like it's no tomorrow and I thought, for the most part, we did just that."
None of those 54 points were any bigger than the clutch jumper that senior Joey Rodriguez hit from the corner to give VCU a 68-64 advantage with under 30 seconds to play in the contest. It was the only field-goal of the day for the Merritt Island, Fla. native. However, it was the little things he did that were vital to the win, like his seven rebounds, his five assists and his clutch free-throw shooting.
"That's why we call him "The General"," Smart said. "He's our leader in everything we do and those are the type of shots we all expect him to knock down."
Offensively, the Black & Gold were led by junior Bradford Burgess who tallied his fifth 20-point performance of the year with 22 points on 7-of-14 from the field and a perfect 7-of-7 from the charity stripe. Joining Burgess in double-figures was senior Jamie Skeen who was phenomenal once again with a 17-point, four rebound effort.
"As a team, the shots weren't really falling for us, so we told our guys we had to become aggressive and you can see that with the 28 free-throw attempts," Smart said. "The key is to be able to knock them down and we've done a great job of that lately."
Behind loud crowd of 4,928, the Dukes came out inspired and a three-pointer from Rayshawn Goins quickly gave them a 16-7 lead, but the Rams took the initial gut punch and got right back up.
Behind 10 early points from Burgess, the Black & Gold chipped away at the lead and eventually took their lead, 24-22, when senior Brandon Rozzell drained a three-pointer from the left corner with 8:33 remaining in the first half. It marked Rozzell's first game since Jan. 8, missing the last eight with a broken right hand.
Both teams made runs closing out the first half, but a three-pointer from Skeen with 1:16 left sent VCU into the break with a 39-36 advantage.
Led by Burgess, the Rams came out pushing in the second half and increased their lead to as many as eight, 46-38, with 18:17 remaining in regulation.
The next 10 minutes saw the teams trade baskets until the Dukes ran off an 8-0 run thanks in large part to the play of Devon Moore, giving JMU a 58-56 lead with just over five minutes to play.
As they had done all year long, the Rams showed resolve with consecutive free-throws by Rodriguez and a huge three-pointer from Skeen to give VCU a 61-58 cushion, a lead that they would never relinquish.
Moore would try and rally the Dukes, but Rodriguez's jumper and a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line helped the Rams secure the road victory, their fifth in the past six contests away from the Siegel Center.
"I can't say enough about this team and the way we are able to stick together in tough environments," Skeen said. "We all want to win so badly that really is the only thing in our minds no matter what the crowd is shouting at us."
Senior Ed Nixon had another outstanding effort with nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and held JMU sharpshooter Julius Wells to just 10 points.
"That's what Ed does," Smart said. "When I get the chance, I try to talk about him as much as possible because he really is the glue that holds us together defensively and he does so many things that don't necessarily show up on a stat sheet."
VCU wraps up their three-game road trip on Wednesday when they travel to Newark, Del. to take on the Fightin' Blue Hens of the University of Delaware in a 7 p.m. contest.