SALT LAKE CITY — VCU, a March Madness mainstay with seven straight NCAA tournament appearances, had seen some mad frights in recent years. Two years ago in the round of 64, it joined the many people who could not contain Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, thus took an overtime loss. Last year in the round of 32, it had the displeasure of running across Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, whose path to the Final Four featured 36 points dropped on VCU, including 19 in the final eight minutes of a win that flattered both sides.
This time, the Rams didn’t encounter a star to usher them out, but they did find something harsh. They ran into the victory-prone band of defenders, cutters, screeners and Australians from Saint Mary’s, the Bay Area program with 263 wins across the past 10 seasons. When the Gaels’ 85-77 win and 37-29 rebounding edge were done in a West Region first-round game, VCU had nibbled again at going further, six years after it famously went all the way to the Final Four.
“There’s no shame in losing to Saint Mary’s,” VCU Coach Will Wade said. “They’re a tremendous, tremendous team.”
His Atlantic 10 runners-up, who finished the season at 26-9 in a season Wade called the second toughest of their seven-year streak, had ridden from an 18-17 lead midway through the first half to a 46-29 deficit just 1:32 before halftime to within 56-54 midway through the second half before Saint Mary’s staved them off.
“They cut it to two, and we used our experience to kind of respond,” Saint Mary’s captain Joe Rahon said, even though it was the Gaels who lacked tournament experience the past four seasons. They had, however, won a heap of games in their absence, then 28 more this season, with three of their four losses to Gonzaga. As a rare at-large team from a mid-major conference with a No. 7 seed, they looked the part through the stretch, especially after Coach Randy Bennett reinserted Rahon and his four fouls. “I rolled the dice,” Bennett said, and Rahon’s savvy made that work.
All along, Saint Mary’s dealt with VCU’s pressure and with one of college basketball’s blurriest blurs, VCU senior guard JeQuan Lewis. Lewis had 30 points, and his spin move past the Gaels’ Tanner Krebs with 29 seconds left was a dazzler, but he missed 16 of 28 shots, including 7 of 9 three-pointers.
“We beat a good team tonight,” Bennett said. “They have a good program that’s been good for many years and has a lot of tradition. They’re hard to put away.”
The Gaels (29-4) spread their points around, with 18 of them to Australian center Jock Landale, 16 each for Rahon and Calvin Hermanson, and 13 for Australian point guard Emmett Naar. Thirteen of their rebounds went to Landale in a category Bennett cited as pivotal. They had a knack for finding the open people, most compellingly with 4:24 left, when Naar threw a long pass on the break to Hermanson, who dunked just ahead of a challenge from Mo Alie-Cox. “They move the ball phenomenally on offense,” Lewis said, soon adding, “They’ll pass up a good shot for a great shot.”
They rode that to a first half so brilliant that Rahon called it the best of their season. When it ended, they had blown by VCU with their 29-11 run, and VCU forward Jordan Burgess touted the “different variables to their offense.” Said Wade: “When you get to this level of play, you’ve got to have very, very good big guys. Their bigs were just bigger and better than our bigs.”
It left Wade, the second-year VCU coach, nostalgic already for Lewis and his five seniors. “I love the kid to death,” he said of Lewis, “and I’m going to miss him, miss him, miss him.”