Virginia Commonwealth too much for Richmond, advances to Atlantic 10 semifinals

The 23rd-ranked Virginia Commonwealth men’s basketball team leaned on its trademark press to forge a commanding lead in the first half and rolled to a 71-53 victory over Richmond in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament Friday night at Barclays Center.

In winning their fifth in a row, the second-seeded Rams advanced to Saturday’s semifinals, where it will face George Washington, an 85-77 winner over Massachusetts. VCU was sparked by 18 points from junior guard Briante Weber, the Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year, and Treveon Graham’s 14 points and six rebounds.

The Rams (25-7) beat their crosstown rival for a third straight time and moved to 3-0 all time against Richmond, the No. 7 seed, in conference tournaments. On Friday night, they did it with a 50-28 rebounding margin and by limiting Richmond to 34 percent shooting.

VCU scored eight of the first nine points, including the first three field goals in a row by Weber, and never looked back, expanding the margin to double figures shortly thereafter courtesy of a 15-2 flurry that had the undermanned Spiders scrambling the rest of the way.

“[Weber] gave us a terrific lift early on offensively, put the ball in the basket a lot, which we’ll take whenever we can get it,” Rams Coach Shaka Smart said. “I thought that gave us momentum early, and we were able to get defensive stops to extend the lead.”

The decisive burst began with 7 minutes 52 seconds to play and the Rams leading by five following five straight points from Richmond sophomore forward Terry Allen. Senior guard Rob Brandenberg got it started with a layup, and Weber added a three-pointer before freshman guard ShawnDre’ Jones (18 points) answered for the Spiders with a jumper.

“We definitely came here with the mind-set to win this thing,” Weber said. “We took care of business tonight. We’re going to watch [the second quarterfinal] to see who we have to play next, and we’re just going to do what we have to do to get the ‘W.’ ”

From there VCU got a three-pointer from sophomore guard Melvin Johnson, who earlier had spent several minutes on the bench immediately after being assessed a flagrant 1 for elbowing Allen, and a one-handed dunk by freshman forward Mo Alie-Cox for a 28-15 lead.

“We came out planning for a 40-minute battle,” Johnson said. “We didn’t think it was going to be a [blowout]. We played them twice already, once our style of play and once their style of play, so we’re real familiar with their offense. For the most part this was just a players’ game.”

Richmond Coach Chris Mooney called a timeout after that field goal that drew hearty applause from the VCU faithful, but the Rams continued to pour it on out of the stoppage. Five straight points from Graham bumped the advantage to 33-15 with 3:37 left, and roughly two and a half minutes later, the lead swelled to 19 points.

The Spiders (19-14) briefly threatened to turn the game competitive after the break, using a 6-2 run to get within 40-28, but VCU quickly grew the lead again to a more comfortable margin. The Rams scored four in a row. Following a timeout by Smart with 15:49 left in regulation, they added seven more points consecutively to lead 51-31.

The Rams entered the Atlantic 10 tournament all but assured of a fourth consecutive berth in the NCAA tournament, where in 2010-11 they used a memorable run to the Final Four to move from regional upstart into the national college basketball landscape. At the time, VCU was a member of the Colonial Athletic Association before joining the Atlantic 10 last season.

In its most recent meeting with Richmond, the Rams forced 15 turnovers in a 56-50 victory at Robins Center. That win gave VCU a sweep of the regular season series for the first time since 1996-97, when Richmond also was in the CAA, and came five days after the Rams toppled Atlantic 10 regular season champion Saint Louis, 67-56.

The Spiders, meanwhile, came into the Atlantic 10 tournament without leading scorer Cedrick Lindsay, who tore menisci in both knees Feb. 5 in a 64-62 win against St. Bonaventure. The senior from Gonzaga is out for the season and has missed the past 10 games.

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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