By Chris Kowalczyk
NORFOLK, Va. – If nothing else, the VCU Women's Basketball team sounded like a championship contender after Thursday night's heart-pounding, 63-60, victory at Old Dominion. Like a team in mid-season form, the clichés were out in full force.
"…any time you can go on the road and win in the CAA is big."
"We've got to take it one game at a time…"
"…it's just another game…"
Etcetera, etcetera. Rinse and repeat.
Yup, the Rams said all the right things. They tried to be overtly humble and show a sense of perspective. They tried to act like it was just another game, but it's really not that simple.
The magnitude of Thursday's victory over the Lady Monarchs (11-6, 5-1 CAA), previously unbeaten in the CAA, is much greater than that. Considering that VCU (10-6, 5-1 CAA) once went 37 seasons between victories in Norfolk until a 75-56 triumph last season, it's impossible to call any victory in the Ted Constant Center just another win. Not if you want anybody to believe you, anyway.
For all the political correctness expressed in the moments following the victory, there was real, raw emotion in VCU's celebration near midcourt at the final buzzer. Having just withstood a furious rally by ODU in the closing minutes, the Rams erupted off the bench, although some of it was probably an expression of relief.
It was obvious on the players' faces and in the endless supply of high-fives and hugs handed out by Dan Cunningham, husband of Rams' Head Coach Beth Cunningham, on his way back to the locker room to congratulate his wife.
The reality of it was that the Rams had just scored their biggest win of the season behind a 19-point, 16-rebound effort by junior Courtney Hurt, two clutch buckets by sophomore Sonia Johnson down the stretch and timely contributions by a number of other players.
"I think we built a little character," said Hurt. "A lot of people stepped up, made big plays. [Sonia] played one of her better games so far. It's given us something to build on."
Hurt, who has rapidly evolved from VCU's third or fourth option last season to an All-America candidate this year, has said that she believes this team can contend for a championship. But following the loss of three players, D'Andra Moss, Kita Waller and La'Tavia Rorie - a trio what totaled more than 3,400 points in their careers – could she convince anyone that it was true? She certainly can now. Instead of rebuilding, VCU has reloaded.
Even the most casual fans know that the road to the CAA title runs through Norfolk. Old Dominion once famously won 17 straight league titles. Thursday's VCU win was just the sixth by a CAA team in Norfolk during the regular season since ODU joined the league in 1992. Yeah, this one was different.
Last season, Hurt averaged 13 points and seven rebounds, but this year she's become a terror in the paint, leading the nation in rebounding (13.4 rpg), while ranking second in scoring (23.8 ppg). In addition, the Rams have added transfers Andrea Barbour (Virginia Tech via Patrick Henry CC) and Sonia Johnson (Delaware State) to form an impressive three-pronged attack. That trio combined for 49 points and 24 rebounds against Old Dominion.
But the victory also showcased the maturation of some previously unknown quantities. Junior Chelsea Snyder, who played a total of 97 minutes her first two seasons, had seven rebounds and two huge baskets in the second half. Freshmen Robyn Parks and Zakia Williams also had critical buckets to quell ODU rallies.
"I think we showed a lot of toughness," said Cunningham, the program's all-time leader in victories. "We showed a mental toughness that I've really been challenging our team with. I think we took a big step forward as far as having that mental toughness and overcoming adversity a little bit in the second half, rather than giving in when the game was on the line. We found a way to step up and get a win and I think that's a big step forward for our kids."
Hurt spent the first 30 minutes of the game carving up Old Dominion, but when the Lady Monarchs began throwing double teams, triple teams, the kitchen sink, a busload of septuagenarians - whatever they could find – at the VCU forward, the Rams managed to find just enough answers. When the Lady Monarchs whittled the VCU lead to just 58-56 with 2:37, the Rams got five points from Johnson, including one bucket on a nifty feed from Hurt underneath.
"We all had heart and we all stayed together," Johnson, who finished with 19 points, said. "We saw the lead going down, but as long as we kept that lead, that's all that matters, whether it's winning by 15 or winning by three."
Now, despite a head-scratching loss to Towson last week, the Rams find themselves in a four-way logjam atop the CAA standings. Not bad for a team selected fifth in the league's preseason coaches poll.
The Rams won't have too much time to enjoy Thursday's whirlwind victory. Defending CAA Champion James Madison awaits on Sunday in Harrisonburg, Va. JMU is 12-6 overall and tied with the Rams, Lady Monarchs and UNC Wilmington with a 5-1 CAA mark.
But VCU believes that its triumph over Old Dominion will be worth more than just a tangible gain in the win column. The Rams hope the win can be a springboard for this squad as the season progresses.
"I think this game helped us believe in ourselves even more," Johnson said. "We already had confidence in ourselves. We knew we could do it, it was just a matter of doing it, and I think we showed today that we can beat anybody."
One game at a time.