RICHMOND, Va. – For four years, the seniors on the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball team were known for their heart, toughness and never say die mentality.
It's fitting that the quartet showed exactly those characteristics in the CAA Championship game on Monday night at the Richmond Coliseum. Unfortunately for the Black & Gold, it wasn't enough as chaotic second-half rally fell short, 70-65, against Old Dominion, who captured their second straight conference title.
"I can't say enough about this group of guys and the toughness and resiliency they showed once again tonight," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "This isn't how we wanted it to end, but we will walk with our heads held high and look forward to playing more basketball in whatever tournament we get sent to."
"I would never have wanted to do this with another group of guys," Skeen said. "It sucks and it hurts really bad, but I've loved every minute of it. We left it all on the court tonight."
The game got off to an odd start when baby powder covered the Rams' offensive end for the first couple minutes after a stunt by the ODU mascot. However, sharp shooting from the outside gave VCU an early 10-9 lead after Burgess drilled a three-pointer with 15:06 left in the first stanza.
Hassell and Trian Illiadis sparked a 12-1 Monarch run that gave Old Dominion its first double-digit cushion of the night. VCU would not go away as a three-pointer by senior Ed Nixon brought the Rams within two at 21-19 at the 7:46 mark of the first half.
That's when things changed as Nixon took an elbow from Hassell while fighting for a rebound and had to sit the rest of the half to get stitches in his mouth. Without its top defender, the Black & Gold struggled to hold contain the Monarch offense as it stretched its lead to 13 at 39-26 heading into halftime.
"Ed's been our top defender all year long and everyone in our program thought he deserved to be on the all-defense team," Smart said. "When you have to play without a guy like that for an extended period of time, it's going to hurt. He's the glue that keeps our defensive efforts together."
ODU's offensive success continued in the beginning of the second half as the Monarchs' lead rose to as much as 18 after a lay-up by Hassell with 16:35 left in the contest.
Enter the heart of a Ram. VCU ripped off an 11-0 run capped off by a putback by Burgess that made the score 46-39 with 11:52 remaining.
The Monarchs got their lead back to 11, but Burgess led the Rams on another surge, this time bringing the Black & Gold within one at 55-54 with the clock showing 4:27 left in regulation.
"I really thought we had it," Senior Joey Rodriguez said. "We just kept telling each other to stick together and do our jobs. Unfortunately, we just weren't able to finish it off."
However, ODU was able to make a couple more plays down the stretch and hold on for the 70-65 championship victory. They are the first back-to-back champions since UNC Wilmington in 2002 and 2003.
"That's a very, very good team in Old Dominion," Smart said. "They're just so physically imposing and make you work during every possession. It's just another example of how tough this league is."
Hassell led all scorers with 22 points and nine rebounds to earn tournament MVP accolades, while Kent Bazemore finished with 14 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals.
The Rams will now have to wait until next Sunday, March 13th to find out what postseason tournament that they will participate in.