SAN ANTONIO — In the moments after Virginia Commonwealth’s latest NCAA tournament stunner, the Rams encircled one of their youngest, a freshman named Heath Houston, in an exuberant Alamodome locker room and watched him perform the team’s post-win ritual.
Houston started by dodging and weaving before thrusting his fists at an imaginary punching bag. He stomped on the ground and then added an opponent-specific twist: Houston locked his thumbs and flapped the rest of his fingers as he extended his hands toward the ceiling. Breaking his grasp, he smacked the imaginary bird he’d formed seconds earlier with his right hand and pretended to shove it in his mouth.
He gulped and he smiled and the room erupted. VCU had swallowed top-seeded Kansas, 71-61, on Sunday in the Southwest Region final, becoming the third No. 11 seed in NCAA tournament history to advance to the Final Four. On Saturday in Houston, the Rams, who finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association this season, will face Butler, another defiant mid-major program.
“We’re in the middle of ACC country,” CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said. “We don’t get the time of day.”
That soon may change thanks in large part to a team that refers to itself as the Bugatti Boys and revels in a freshman-led victory celebration called the Knockout Dance. En route to serving a roundhouse blow to the Jayhawks, VCU tied a season high by making 12 three-pointers and raced up and down the floor in its typical pedal-to-the-floorboard fashion.
These Rams are not physically imposing, certainly not when matched against a Kansas squad that featured towering twin forwards Markieff and Marcus Morris. But they are relentless in their approach, which — as their five vanquished power-conference foes can attest — has proved to be a surprisingly effective method over the past two weeks.
“I guess the media must have gotten to them,” VCU guard Ed Nixon said of Kansas, which entered the game an 11-point favorite. “They must have really thought that they were just going to take it, like it was already theirs. Marcus Morris, or one of the Morris brothers, they were saying, when the captains go and meet, they were saying: ‘Y’all had a good run. It’s time for y’all to go home.’
“So they were very confident. Maybe too confident.”
Despite the Morris twins combining to score 20 of Kansas’s 27 first-half points, the Jayhawks entered the intermission trailing by 14, their largest halftime deficit of the season. Kansas shot 31.3 percent and recorded eight turnovers in the first half.
“We shot it miserably,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said. “I think [VCU’s] defense has a lot to do with that as far as maybe speeding you up a bit and maybe not letting you get into a rhythm.”
The Jayhawks mounted a second-half comeback that cut their deficit to two with just more than 13 minutes remaining, but they would come no closer.
At one point during Kansas’s run, VCU Coach Shaka Smart earned his first technical foul of the season and his second in two years as the Rams’ coach for aggressively approaching an official after a series of calls were made against his team. Smart said he’s “just got to control my pace as I move towards officials,” perhaps identifying the only time during the game in which he wants to slow the tempo.
Smart apologized to the Rams in the huddle after the technical foul was assessed, “but then I told our team something that I can’t necessarily repeat verbatim here, but it was basically: ‘Forget the refs. Forget Kansas. This is all about us, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.’ And we did.”
Led by forward Jamie Skeen, who finished with a game-high 26 points and 10 rebounds, VCU pushed its lead back to double digits and fended off the Jayhawks the rest of the way.
The Rams shot 48 percent from three-point range Sunday, continuing a hot shooting streak that has propelled them past representatives of the Pacific-10 (Southern California), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue), ACC (Florida State) and Big 12 (Kansas).
And now the squad that models its play after the Bugatti — the French manufacturer of a sports car with a top speed (267.85 mph) that exceeds any other street-legal vehicle in the world — will cruise on to Houston, hoping that its own Houston will perform the Knockout Dance a few more times.
“We ain’t never lettin’ off the gas,” VCU guard Darius Theus said. “Fast car. We play fast. We never lettin’ up.”