By Ben Golliver
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Inches short of another shot at magic.
VCU proved that its unforgettable Final Four run in 2011 was no one-hit wonder, but the breaks of the game caught up during their South Regional Round of 32 game against Indiana on Saturday at the Rose Garden.
The region's No. 12 seed controlled the action against the No. 5 seeded Hoosiers, applying its familiar relentless pressure defense to force 22 turnovers and push out to a nine-point second-half lead. But the Hoosiers closed on a 15-4 run to win 63-61, a Will Sheehey baseline jumper providing the winning margin with 11 seconds left.
The Rams and coach Shaka Smart had one final crack at a second deep tournament run, calling a timeout to diagram a play in front of their own bench with a chance to tie or win the game in the closing seconds.
The play wasn't necessarily designed to produce a game-winning three-pointer, with Smart trusting his guards to read the defense, run a play with options and pick the one that produced the best shot. Junior guard Darius Theus did just that, driving to draw the defense before kicking out to sophomore guard Rob Brandenberg, who was open at the left angle for a clean look at a three.
"I came off the drag, [Cody] Zeller had switched out to me," Theus said. "We work on it every day, attack the big. Rob had a wide open shot, we'll take that shot every day."
"Darius did a good job attacking the switch," Brandenberg said. "Darius put a lot of pressure on the defense. My man sagged off on me. Darius made the right play, we work on it every day, hit me with the wide open three."
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"I'll take that shot again every day of the week. It just didn't go," Smart said, after shaking his head, sitting silently at the post-game microphone and exhaling deeply into the microphone. "That's basketball, it happens."
The miss slammed the door on a VCU season that included more accomplishments than most preseason prognostications predicted. The Rams went 29-7, winning the CAA conference and beating the South Regional's No. 5 seed, Wichita State, in the opening round on Thursday.
That looked every bit the deserving winner on Saturday, forcing turnovers every way imaginable. Indiana's starting backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls committed 5 each; the Hoosiers committed an over-and-back violation, a 5-second violation, had passes intercepted, and dribbles deflected.
But VCU was undone by poor outside shooting that caught up to them in the closing minutes, as the Rams shot just 9-30 on the game and scored just 19 points in the second half. Brandenberg and junior guard Troy Daniels combined to shoot just 4-15 from deep. VCU managed to score just two points in the last 6:39 of the game with senior wing Bradford Burgess missing two free throws in the final minute.
"We're a good offensive team, we're not a great offensive team," Smart admitted. "We've had lulls all year."
One thing was clear after this loss: Smart wasn't buying any "just happy to be here" talk even those his overachieving team was loaded with underclassmen and last season's success is still fresh in the memory.
"It's hard to call anything a success after a loss," he said, knowing that Indiana will be the team to move on to the quarterfinals in Atlanta next week. "We go into every single game expecting to win and advance and we didn't do that today. It stings, it hurts."
So how long will one of college basketball's most promising coaches dwell on the loss?
"A long time," Smart said. "I don't deal very well with losing. But it's part of life, you know?"
Losing, and the pain that goes with the close ones, is a part of tournament life, without a doubt.