CHARLESTON, S.C. - Growing up is a unique process because no one knows when individuals will make progress, some do it quicker than others. A team is the same way.
On Sunday afternoon, the VCU (2-2) men's basketball team took a big step forward in the growing up process a hard-fought 69-64 victory over a tough Western Kentucky (1-4) team in the final game of the 2011 Charleston Classic for both teams.
"I'm really proud of the way our guys grew up today and showed a lot of the things we were looking for," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "Western Kentucky is a tough team and we knew we had to be locked in for 40 minutes if we wanted to get the result we were looking for. Fortunately we were able to show just enough resilience to come away with the victory."
Sophomore Rob Brandenberg led the way with a game-high 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, along with three assists, two rebounds and two steals. Junior Darius Theus tallied double-digits again for the Rams, finishing with 12 points, five assists, three steals and three rebounds. Senior Bradford Burgess and junior Troy Daniels were the other two Rams in double-figures, each finishing with 10 points.
In his first collegiate game, T.J. Price led the Hilltoppers with 17 points including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Kevin Kaspar was the only other WKU player in double-digits with 13.
"We're too good of a team to ever lose three in a row, we just couldn't let that happen," Brandenberg said. "The leaders of this team really stepped up in the second half and I'm proud of the way we battled as a group. Now it's a matter of staying focused and hungry each time we take the floor."
It was a back-and-forth battle for 40 minutes with each team making their respective runs.
With 10:35 left on the first half clock, WKU led 24-18 before VCU ran off an 8-0 spurt capped off by a three-pointer from Daniels to give the Rams their first lead of the game at 26-24.
The Hilltoppers responded by retaking the lead, but Burgess put together a 7-0 scoring run all by himself to give the Black & Gold a 37-33 cushion at halftime.
After knocking down eight of their first 10 shots, WKU's offense was stifled by VCU's defense, finishing the first half by knocking down just 2 of their next 14 shots.
Those shooting woes would not carry over into the second half as the Hilltoppers connected on their first four three-point attempts of the second half en route to a 23-7 run to grab the game's largest lead at 56-44 with 8:04 remaining.
"That huddle was big for us as a team," Theus said. "When we got down 12, we really challenged each other to lock in defensively because we know that getting stops is the best way to get our offense going. I really feel our leadership took a big step forward at the moment."
Theus and Brandenberg stepped up by combining to score the next 10 points in the contest to bring VCU within two at 56-54 with 6:38 left in regulation.
WKU would push their lead to four on three occasions, but each time the Rams responded and finally took the lead with their aggressiveness late in the contest.
Burgess and Daniels both got into the lane and drew fouls with less than 70 seconds remaining. Both guards drilled their free-throws to give the Rams a 67-64 cushion with 27 seconds to play.
The Black & Gold would get the much-needed stop and freshman Briante Weber connected on two free-throws to seal the 69-64 win for the Rams.
Just like the first half, VCU's defense locked in over the final eight minutes, allowing just eight points and forcing five turnovers over that span. For the game, the Black & Gold forced 20 turnovers for the third time this year and registered double-digit steals for the third time.
The two former Sun Belt Conference rivals will face-off again on Wednesday evening when the Rams travel to Bowling Green, Ky. For a 8 p.m. EST contest.