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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Even when the going gets tough, the Rams get tougher


SAN ANTONIO -- We've seen VCU win easy. In the 2011 NCAA tournament the Rams have beaten Southern California by 13 points, then Georgetown by 18, then Purdue by 18. As a front-runner, VCU is Secretariat.

But this wasn't easy. Florida State? That's never easy. The Seminoles are the best defensive team in the country -- that's a statistical fact -- and they hit VCU in the mouth. Then the Seminoles hit VCU in the eye, on the nose and about the ears. The Seminoles bludgeoned VCU from start to finish, stealing passes and blocking shots and hitting enough shots of their own to make VCU work like VCU hadn't had to work in weeks.

But VCU is one game away from the Final Four because the Rams can win any way you want. Hard, easy. Pretty, ugly. They can do it all, and Friday was confirmation of that. Again, VCU had been Secretariat for three games -- the loveliest team in this NCAA tournament -- but on Friday night VCU found itself in an ass-kicking contest with the orneriest mule in the field.

And VCU landed the last kick, two of them in fact, scoring the go-ahead bucket off an inbounds play with seven seconds left in overtime and then blocking the Seminoles' final shot at the buzzer to seal a 72-71 victory.

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VCU will play Kansas on Sunday for the Southwest Regional championship, a game that nobody could have predicted two weeks ago -- especially considering that more than a few people thought VCU didn't belong in this tournament in the first place.

That's old news, though VCU coach Shaka Smart will continue to use it to motivate his team -- and he's free to do it. Look, it's working. But this VCU team has elevated itself beyond any niche story some writers will try to sell you. VCU is no longer underestimated or overlooked. The Rams aren't Cinderella, unless Cinderella is wearing 4-ounce MMA gloves and throwing hooks to the head.

VCU is, plain and simple, a dominant basketball team, and Friday night we learned about its resilience. Florida State pushed VCU to the limit and then beyond, clawing back from a nine-point deficit in the final seven minutes of regulation to tie the score on Chris Singleton's NBA-length 3-pointer with 45 seconds left. FSU center Bernard James preserved the tie with nine seconds left by leaving his man to block a driving layup by VCU scoring leader Brandon Burgess.

In overtime, it happened again. VCU scored five straight points early to take command, but Florida State wouldn't go away. The Seminoles drew within one point on Derwin Kitchen's driving basket, the final points of the best game of his career -- 23 points, 12 rebounds, three assists -- and then took the lead on another bucket by Singleton, this one with 29 seconds left.

After working the clock, VCU was left with an inbounds play under the basket with seven seconds left. After 44 minutes and 53 seconds, the Rams finally had FSU where they wanted it, because the game was in the hands of VCU coach Shaka Smart. And Smart is the real deal. More than a charismatic recruiter, more than a young coach who relates so well to his players, Smart is an X-and-O savant who has been abusing older, more experienced coaches -- Kevin O'Neill, John Thompson III and Matt Painter in the first three rounds -- on set plays.

Add FSU's Leonard Hamilton to that list.

"We thought we had every possibility covered," Hamilton said. "But one of their players broke free ... and therein lies the one-point loss."

Verily, Smart drew up a slow-developing play that produced an easy layup -- Joey Rodriguez waited for Burgess to appear, alone, under the basket on the inbounds pass -- and then Rob Brandenberg made it stand up by blocking the Seminoles' final fling at the buzzer.

The end result was the same result we've had three other times in this tournament. VCU ran off the court, its opponent walked off the court, and another chapter was added to the best story of this tournament. But this chapter had the plot twist of competition, which might seem harsh to VCU's earlier opponents, but it's true. VCU wasn't pushed by Georgetown or Purdue in the previous two rounds, but FSU was pushy, feisty, disagreeable. This was the mother-in-law of all games for VCU, which was outrebounded 45-32 and was forced into 16 turnovers, two stats that explained VCU's 18-shot deficit in field goal attempts.

It's almost impossible to win a game when your opponent gets 18 more shots than you, but VCU won it with the same 3-point shooting it has shown all tournament. Burgess was particularly ridiculous, making 6 of 7 shots from 3-point range for the bulk of his 26 points. Brandon Rozzell, scoreless in the first half, erupted for 12 points in less than four minutes of the second half -- three straight 3-pointers, followed by a conventional 3-point play -- and finished with 16. Rodriguez shot poorly (1 of 6 from the floor, 2 of 5 from the line) but had 10 assists and three steals. Jamie Skeen added 11 points and eight rebounds.

And VCU won. Wasn't pretty, but VCU won. So we're left with a crazy region championship between the only top seed still alive against a team that wins pretty, wins ugly, wins period.

A No. 1 seed vs. a No. 11 seed? I'm pretty sure I know who the underdog will be. But I have no idea who the underdog should be.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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