NEW YORK — In the wake of Virginia Commonwealth’s 87-74 loss to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center, a reporter asked senior guard Korey Billbury about his mind-set entering Sunday evening, when the Rams would learn whether they would make the NCAA tournament field for a sixth consecutive season.
Before he had a chance to answer, though, Coach Will Wade jumped in.
“We’re going to make the tournament,” Wade said. “We’ll be ready to go.”
Wade was right. VCU entered this week with two goals in mind: to eliminate any doubts about being worthy of an at-large spot in the bracket, and to come away with a conference tournament championship.
Sunday’s loss prevented the latter, but victories over Massachusetts in the quarterfinals Friday night and Davidson in the semifinals Saturday removed any doubt as the Rams earned a No. 10 seed in the West region, where they’ll head to Oklahoma City to face No. 7 seed Oregon State on Friday.
If the Rams advance, they’ll likely face No. 2 seed Oklahoma and national player of the year candidate Buddy Hield. The Sooners will open with Cal State Bakersfield.
“Oh, yeah,” Wade said when asked if this was a successful week for his program. “The goal was to get to the NCAA tournament.
“We were the co-champions of the league in the regular season. We played for the conference tournament championship, and we’re going to play in the NCAA tournament. That’s a hell of a year at any place. That’s a very, very good year. We had to fight through some things, and so I’m proud of our guys. We’ve got to be ready to go wherever they send us this week.”
In VCU’s first season since former coach Shaka Smart’s departure for Texas, not much has changed for the Rams (24-10): They’re still an aggressive, physical team that uses pressure to wear down its opponents.
But that wasn’t enough for the Rams to come away with a victory over Saint Joseph’s on Sunday. The Hawks (27-7) were another team that entered the weekend needing to do some work to ensure it had a spot inside the tournament field — only to come away with the conference’s automatic bid thanks to victories over George Washington and Dayton before beating VCU.
“Look, championships are forever,” Saint Joseph’s Coach Phil Martelli said. “So, whether they want to get tatted up or not get tatted up, they have a tattoo now.
“Every kid on that team, 2016 Atlantic 10 champions. That’s their tattoo. That’s theirs.”
It’s theirs, in large part, because of spectacular performances from senior forward Isaiah Miles and junior forward DeAndre’ Bembry. Miles, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds , while Bembry — the conference’s regular season player of the year and a projected second-round pick in this year’s draft by DraftExpress — finished with 30 points, five rebounds and four assists .
While VCU kept trying to claw its way back into the game in the second half, at one point cutting Saint Joseph’s lead to seven on a three-pointer by Jordan Burgess with 4 minutes 25 seconds remaining, the Hawks had an answer every time. Bembry put away the game in the final three minutes — first driving into the lane and converting layup over Burgess while drawing a foul to make it 83-70 with 2:22 remaining, and following that up with an emphatic dunk on the next possession to make it 85-70 with 1:50 left, igniting celebrations among the Saint Joseph’s faithful in attendance.
“Give Saint Joe’s credit,” Wade said. “Miles and Bembry were phenomenal tonight. They absolutely killed us . . . they did a great job.
“Bembry and Miles showed up, and showed out big-time. Give those guys credit. They were phenomenal, [and] Coach Martelli did a great job. They’re going to represent the league very well in the tournament.”
VCU will be right there alongside them, as will Dayton .
But all of that was of little consequence to the Rams, who, after a job well done in ensuring they heard their names called Sunday night with a strong performance here this week, had a couple of hours to rest up and collect themselves before beginning to prepare for whoever their opponent will be in a few days.
“Oh, we’ll be fine,” Wade said. “We’ve recovered well from losses all year long, and we’ll be fine. We’ll be ready to go wherever they send us, we’ll be ready to go on Thursday or Friday. We’ll be ready to roll. We need to rest a little bit, recover a little bit, and then get ready to go later on this week.”