By JOSH NEWMAN
Special to ZAGSBLOG
The 35-year-old head coach has not let the program slip in the two years since a magical, surprising run to the 2011 Final Four.
No. 2 seed VCU, now 25-7 overall after an 82-79 win over 10th-seeded St. Joseph’s in an Atlantic-10 Tournament quarterfinal in front of a pro-Rams crowd at Barclays Center on Friday evening, is a contender. That goes not only for the rest of the weekend in Brooklyn, but starting next week in the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s no load on our shoulders, we came up here to win and we’re excited to advance,” Smart said. “This time of year, you can’t be worrying about pressure or nerves, you gotta go after it. I thought our guys did a good job of that tonight and we’ll have to do the same thing tomorrow regardless of who we play.”
On Friday evening, a young VCU roster was pushed to the limit. After leading by as many as 17 points at the under-8 timeout of the second half, the Hawks kept coming inside the final three minutes, getting as close as four at 80-76 with 13 seconds to play before the Rams hit their free throws late to cap it.
Star sophomore guard Treveon Graham led five Rams in double figures with 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
“The young guys, they stepped up, once the starting five had some foul trouble, they came in the game and gave us a big push,” said senior shooting guard Troy Daniels, who finished with 14, but struggled with his shot, going 5-for-14 from the field and 4-for-13 from 3-point range. “Going into March, we need that, we need other guys to step up and that’s what they did tonight.”
A 10-point VCU halftime lead quickly became only three before Melvin Johnson scored six straight points to help the Rams take back control. Having had a productive freshman season, the Bronx native and former Rice High School and St. Benedict’s Prep star finished with 12 and shot 5-for-11 from the floor, while showing a willingness to attack the rim and look for his shot all night.
“I just wanted to come out and play my best and perform as well as I possibly can and just get a team win,” Johnson added. “I think we did that tonight and I feel proud of myself. I just tried to come out and do whatever the team needs. Coach just gives me the green light to attack at all times. I just made some plays.”
Entering the night, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Rams as a No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region, placed in an opening-weekend pod in Austin that also has potential No. 3 seed New Mexico.
No matter where Smart and his team get sent, they are going to scare somebody in the second round. That’s bound to happen for a program that is 109-35 since Smart came aboard for the beginning of the 2009-10 season, in addition to walking in cold to the A-10 this winter and going 12-4 in league play to earn the No. 2 seed in Brooklyn
Photo: Associated Press