CHICAGO, Ill. – For the past week, all the talk has been about how the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball team was out to prove they belong in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
After three decisive and impressive victories, the statement is now how far can the Black & Gold dance?
On Sunday evening, the 11th-seeded Rams etched their name in school history with the first-ever Sweet 16 berth after throttling third-seeded Purdue, 94-76, in front of over 18,000 people in the United Center.
"This program has had a ton of great players and great teams, but this group of guys just accomplished something that has never happened at VCU. It's a special night for a special group," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "The best part about it is that we're not done yet."
Led by 23 points and eight rebounds from junior Bradford Burgess, VCU had six players in double-figures for the first time in three years. Senior Joey Rodriguez was undeniable the leader of the Rams with his third double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 assists, while not committing a turnover all night.
"Before the game, Coach talked about attacking the defense and finding your teammates," Rodriguez said. "That's exactly what I was trying to do. Sometimes you're just in a groove and seeing the floor good, I guess that was tonight for me."
No prior VCU team had ever won more than one game in the NCAA Tournament. This year's squad has already tallied three and will be en route to San Antonio in search of more.
"This was a goal we talked about during our summer workouts," senior Brandon Rozzell said. "I'm just happy to have accomplished it with my best friends. We're not done yet though."
The Rams jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, but the sharp-shooting of Purdue's Ryne Smith helped the Boilermakers claim an 18-13 cushion with 12:38 to play in the first half.
Over the next nine minutes, Burgess and Rozzell would ignite a 23-6 run to give the Black & Gold control of the contest and eventually send VCU into the halftime break with a 42-32 advantage.
The start of the second half saw the team trade baskets up until a 13-4 spurt that gave the Rams one of their largest lead of the game at 19 points, 67-48 on a fast-break layup by freshman Rob Brandenberg.
Purdue would not get any closer than 13 the rest of the way with VCU carving up the Boilermaker defense to the tune of 26 assists and just four turnovers.
"All year long we've talked about making the extra pass," Smart said. "It's pretty obvious that tonight we were exceptional in that area."
The 94 points was the highest point total given up by the 26-8 Purdue squad that beat top-ranked Ohio State just a few weeks ago.
Maybe the unsung hero of the night was senior Ed Nixon, who harassed First-Team All-Big Ten shooting guard E'Twaun Moore into just 10 points on 5-of-15 from the field.
"Our communication on the defensive end has been the difference all tournament long," Smart said. "Ed is a huge part of that. He was phenomenal all night long. Check out his offensive line as well, 11 points, six assists and no turnovers. We'll take that any day of the week."
The Rams will take on the 10th-seeded Seminoles of Florida State University on Friday evening in San Antonio. Tip time and television coverage will be released ASAP.