CHICAGO — There are nights when Virginia Commonwealth’s unyielding doggedness cripples an opponent to the point where the foe’s actions let the Rams know they’ve won long before the game clock expires.
On Sunday, for the third time in five days, VCU players noticed telltale signs. Shortly after halftime, Purdue cut its deficit to eight but could come no closer. Then the Boilermakers started using pressure defense. Then they started fouling. Then they began stomping their feet and rolling their eyes.
Indeed, the 11th-seeded Rams knew they’d broken third-seeded Purdue’s spirit and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 well prior to the final horn sounding. VCU’s 94-76 victory Sunday might have taken most of the sports-following nation by surprise, but the Rams insist they saw it coming.
VCU will face 10th-seeded Florida State on Friday in the Southwest Region semifinals in San Antonio.
Purdue “got out of character and started pressing us,” VCU forward Jamie Skeen said. “And they don’t even look like they practice it, honestly. They don’t look like they go over that. So when they started doing that, that’s when I knew that they was breaking.”
VCU’s incessant pressure defense only produced seven Purdue turnovers, but it had a cumulative effect on the Boilermakers as the game progressed. Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez dissected Purdue’s defense — which Boilermakers Coach Matt Painter said was fundamentally flawed Sunday — with pick-and-rolls. And to balance that out, VCU guard Bradford Burgess made 3 of 4 three-point shots and finished with a team-high 23 points.
Purdue’s motion offense concerned VCU Coach Shaka Smart heading into Sunday’s matchup, and he said Saturday the Rams likely would employ healthy doses of 2-3 zone to try to disrupt the Boilermakers’ offensive flow.
That plan initially didn’t pay dividends, as Purdue guard Ryne Smith made three three-pointers and tallied 11 points in the first six and a half minutes of the game. Smith finished with 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting from three-point range.
The Boilermakers (26-8) established an early lead, but Rodriguez kept the Rams (26-11) in contention with repeated drives to the basket. His finishes at the rim and his dishes to nearby teammates helped VCU own an 18-8 advantage in points in the paint by halftime.
Rodriguez, who recorded eight points and four assists in the first half, considered leaving the program when Smart took over the team two years ago. Homesick and abandoned by former VCU coach Anthony Grant’s departure, Rodriguez informed Smart of his intention to transfer to Division II Rollins College, which is about an hour east of his native Merritt Island, Fla.
Eventually, though, Rodriguez asked to return to VCU, and on Sunday, he stood at the forefront of the Rams’ full-court pressure. VCU’s vaunted press defense didn’t bother the Boilermakers early, but the Rams’ persistence wore on Purdue as the first half continued. A 23-6 run that lasted more than 10 minutes provided VCU a 12-point lead. The Rams led by 10 at the break.
“Coach told us before the game to come in and attack them and play loose and that’s what we did,” said Rodriguez, who finished with 12 points and 11 assists. “When guys pressure you, you don’t want to play on your heels, and tonight we didn’t play on our heels at all.”
Purdue entered the night allowing an average of 60.9 points per game. Prior to facing VCU, the Boilermakers had given up more than 70 points three times this season.
Widely viewed a week ago as one of the NCAA tournament selection committee’s most perplexing inclusions, VCU — which finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association during the regular season — now has defeated three straight opponents from higher profile conferences.
The Rams knocked off the Pacific-10’s Southern California, 59-46, on Wednesday in one of the tournament’s inaugural “First Four” games. Two days later, they throttled Georgetown of the Big East, 74-56. And on Sunday, they overwhelmed Purdue, champions of the regular season in the Big Ten.
“Our guys have worked together all year long,” said Smart, whose squad tallied 26 assists and just four turnovers Sunday. “They shared the basketball. I think we found a high level of defensive energy these last several games, and that’s what has allowed us to advance.”
With time winding down in regulation, the Richmond school’s fans began chanting “C-A-A!” and then “V-C-U!” By then, the contest’s outcome was clear to everyone.