RICHMOND, Va. – VCU's 2012 season has been defined by success: 24 triumphs, four tournament victories, a record-breaking winning streak at home. There's more, but that's not the point. As savory as all those wins are, it's a couple of stinging losses that could guide the Rams at the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament this weekend at Duquesne.
It was an important learning experience for the Rams because VCU Coach James Finley knows that any path to an A-10 championship will go through at least one, if not both, of those teams. As it stands, with a victory over Butler in the first round, VCU would meet second-seeded Xavier in the semifinals on Saturday. If top-seeded Dayton avoids an upset in the semis, the Flyers would advance to the championship match on Sunday.
"We've been talking a lot since the Xavier/Dayton weekend about finishing strong," Finley said. "That's one of the characteristics of our program and our team. We know what we didn't do. We've seen it on film. We've worked on it. We've made some adjustments with personnel with different things on defense. We made a big difference in the areas that were hurting us."
The Musketeers ran away from VCU after rallying from a 22-21 deficit in the first set. The Rams never recovered in that match. But two days later against the Flyers, the Rams hit .348 and challenged Dayton at every turn. Instead of disappointment, VCU players largely felt buoyed by the performance.
"The Xavier match was the only time this year where we can say our whole team didn't function well," Finley added. "What the Dayton game did, is that our girls came off the court and said…we think we can beat them."
Although winning three matches in three days is a tall order, history says the Rams can win their first conference title since 2005.
VCU reached the Colonial Athletic Association Championship Match four times in seven years under Finley, including twice as a No. 6 seed. When the Rams won the crown in 2005, they did so as the No. 4 seed. VCU won three matches in three days that year, including a stunning 3-0 sweep of host and top seed Hofstra in the semifinals. Last season, VCU toppled the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds on the way to the title match. The Rams actually led top-seeded Delaware 2-1 before the Blue Hens rallied for the win.
Whatever the course of the regular season, Finley's teams have usually played their best volleyball with a conference championship on the line. Led by A-10 Rookie of the Year Martina Samadan (pictured, right) and four seniors, Finley believes this group should be no different.
"I hope that a big part of it is that they know how much we believe in them as a staff. I'm always talking about relationships, but I think this is the time when all the investment we put in building relationships, holding each other accountable, encouraging each other, supporting each other, all those things, I think that when it comes down to this that they're going to hold onto each other and we're going to go through the fire."
The Rams, the No. 3 overall seed, will open the tournament on Friday at 4:30 p.m. against No. 6 Butler in the first round at the A.J. Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh. Dayton has won seven of the last nine A-10 Championships, including the last three.