WICHITA, Kansas – There are usually about 30 members of the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball travel party. Going into Friday night's Sears Bracketbuster showdown at Wichita State, it seemed as if that group may be the only people in the world that gave the Black & Gold a chance.
ESPN commentators early in the day said "Wichita State should dominate that game", oddmakers gave the Shockers a nine-point cushion and the confidence of the Rams fanbase seem at an all-time low.
After 40 minutes inside a sold-out Charles Koch Arena, those doubters were all silenced after senior Joey Rodriguez drilled two free- throws with less than a second remaining to send the Black & Gold to a 68-67 victory over the first-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"Nobody gave us a chance except our VCU basketball family," Rodriguez said. "We knew it was going to be a hostile environment, but ultimately we also knew that if we stuck together and showed resolve, we'd win the game."
Rodriguez finished with his second double-double of the year with 15 points and 11 assists, while his classmate Jamie Skeen also tallied a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Junior Bradford Burgess poured in a game-high 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting.
"What a great win for this program," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "This is an unbelievable atmosphere and that's a high-quality Wichita State team. For our guys to show the resolve and toughness they showed tonight is tremendous. Now we just need to continue to show that as we finish the year."
It seemed as if it was a made-for-TV finish as the Shockers drew five free-throw attempts in the final 15 seconds to turn a three-point deficit into a one-point lead. However, Rodriguez took the inbound pass and jetted up the court, drawing a body foul on Joe Ragland to earn two free-throws with 0:00.8 seconds left on the clock.
"I'm not sure if I've ever heard any place louder than it was at that moment," Smart said. "But when I looked at Joey I knew he would make both of them because that's just what he does."
Thanks to four three-pointers early, the Shockers jumped out to a 19-11 advantage, but long distance shots from Rodriguez, Burgess and Skeen ignited a 13-4 run to give VCU a 26-25 lead with less than eight minutes to play in the first stanza.
Both teams would continue to fill up the basket until the Black & Gold reeled off a 10-2 run capped off by a highlight-reel tip-dunk by junior Toby Veal to send VCU into the halftime break leading, 45-38.
"The biggest thing in that first half was our ability to rebound," Skeen said. "Our coaches kept talking about how good they are on the glass, so we were really focused on that and that's how we ended up with seven or eight more boards in the first half."
As expected, the Shockers wouldn't go away and quickly got within three less than a minute into the second half.
The back-and-forth battle continued until Wichita State put together an 8-0 run that saw VCU go 5:52 without a point and 0-for-7 from the field, but the Shockers were only able to grow their lead to as many as two with an unbelievable defensive effort by the Black & Gold.
"Stretches like that happen during basketball games," Smart said. "That's when your defense has to really get in their stances and focus on their job. Our guys were able to do that for just long enough to keep us in the game."
At that point, Burgess connected on a old-fashioned three-point play and senior Brandon Rozzell drilled a huge three-pointer on a pass out from Skeen to give VCU a 65-63 lead and ultimately set-up Rodriguez's heroics.
"We just have to continue to bring this level of energy and focus to every game the rest of the way," Rodriguez said. "If we do, we could accomplish something special."
The Rams return to CAA play next Wednesday when they travel to Drexel University for a 7 p.m. showdown at the DAC.