DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Not that Shaka Smart holds a grudge or anything.
But the first thing the Virginia Commonwealth coach did after his team’s 59-46 NCAA “First Four ” victory over Southern California on Wednesday night was to take a shot at those who questioned whether his team even belonged in the tournament.
“You guys think Jay Bilas watched that game?” he said about the ESPN analyst, one of many who didn’t think the Rams were worthy of making the 68-team field.
On this night, they sure looked as if they could play with anyone.
Jamie Skeen scored 16 points and VCU more than held its own inside against the bigger and stronger Trojans.
“It feels really good because a lot of people were doubting us,” Skeen said. “We were able to come out and prove some people wrong. Instead of just talking about it, we just came out here and played.”
The 11th-seeded teams traded elbows and punishing defense all night, with the Rams (24-11) pulling away down the stretch to set up a game against sixth-seeded Georgetown (21-10) on Friday in Chicago.
Joey Rodriguez had eight points and five assists for VCU, but was one of many standouts for the Rams.
Even though the Trojans started two 6-foot-10 wide-bodies inside, the Rams held a 40-31 edge in rebounding.
“We really followed the game plan in terms of what we were trying to do to stop USC,” said Smart, the second-youngest coach in the NCAA field at 33. “They obviously have a lot of weapons. Our guys did a really good job for 40 minutes on the defensive end. This is as good as we’ve played defensively. Early on offensively we were a little jittery. But our guys really settled down and we made more than enough shots as the game wore on.”
Jio Fontan had 14 points and Nikola Vucevic 11 for USC (19-15), which had just one field goal over the final 9 minutes.
Vucevic, a first-team All-Pac-10 performer, had 14 rebounds and Alex Stepheson added 10. But the Rams had six players with at least three, led by Bradford Burgess with 10.
“They did a good job on defense,” Vucevic said. “They had a guy on me the whole time. They took me out of the game.”
After trailing by as many as five points in the first half, the Rams broke free in the second half with their 3-point shooting.
Skeen hit a 3 to open the second-half scoring and Rodriguez – scoreless to that point – hit two 3s for a 28-24 lead. After Maurice Jones countered by hitting USC’s first 3 of the game, VCU’s Brandon Rozzell hit another shot behind the arc on the left wing to push the lead to 34-27 at the 14:25 mark.
The Rams would never give up the lead.
USC pulled as close as 44-43, but then VCU pulled away again.
With the shot clock running down, Rodriguez passed up a shot and flipped the ball to Ed Nixon, who hit the 3 from the left wing – his only field goal of the game. The Rams then added two foul shots by Burgess and a shot off glass in traffic by Rodriguez for a 51-43 lead.
Fontan, the linchpin of the USC offense, then fouled out on a drive with 3:54 left, crippling the Trojans’ attack.
The Rams padded their lead the rest of the way.
“They more than proved they belong in the NCAA tournament, and we just didn’t play well,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill.
O’Neill had been suspended for the Trojans’ last game, a 67-62 loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament. O’Neill and his wife had gotten into a verbal confrontation with an Arizona booster at the team’s hotel on Thursday night. USC athletic director Pat Haden suspended O’Neill and promised additional penalties.
But O’Neill was reinstated by Haden and the coach apologized to his team before the flight to Ohio. He then offered a public apology during the NCAA’s mandated media interviews Tuesday.
After the game, it was almost as if the Rams expected an apology from the talking heads who doubted them.
“It didn’t motivate us, seeing that (negative) stuff,” Rodriguez said. “We respect those guys, we respect their opinion. But we knew we belonged here. We did a great job coming out here proving it. We’re not done.”
Copyright Associated Press