SAN ANTONIO -- When it ended, they didn't look surprised. VCU's players ran around the court, but not in shock. They ran toward the VCU cheering section in gratitude, then milled around underneath a basket, then sort of ... stopped.
This was no surprise. Not to the VCU players, not to me, probably not to lots of you. At this point, I'm not sure this was even an upset. One of the last teams invited into the 2011 NCAA Tournament had just beaten the field's final remaining No. 1 seed, but VCU's 71-61 victory against Kansas felt routine.
|Whatever you do, do not bet against Shaka Smart cutting down a net in Houston. (AP)|
Sunday wasn't about Kansas.
It was about VCU, because VCU is the team calling the shots, the team hitting the shots, the team moving on to the Final Four in Houston -- where anyone who picks against VCU to win the national championship is someone who hasn't been paying attention.
"I'm sure people will pick against us again," VCU forward Juvonte Reddic said.
Shaka Smart hopes so. The VCU coach uses the disdain of others to light a fire under his team, and for some reason, the disdain continues. When the VCU locker room opened 20 minutes after the game Sunday, a big-screen television was sitting in the middle of the room, turned on and everything. I've been following this team for two weeks, and that was a first. The TV was showing multiple commentators picking Kansas to beat VCU, including Dick Vitale, who could be heard saying, over and over, "I'll be shocked -- shocked, shocked, shocked, shocked ..."
When the clip ended, VCU guard Ed Nixon shouted, "Play it again!"
No need to shout, Ed. It started up again, and again, and again. It was still playing 15 minutes later when I walked out of the locker room, because Shaka Smart had that thing on a running loop. He wanted the media to see it.
This is what you're saying about us. Still. Even now.
The victory against Kansas was a mash-up of every VCU game in this tournament. It was a blowout, like the games against Purdue and Georgetown, with VCU cruising to an 18-point lead in the first half. It was a gut-check, like the Sweet 16 game against Florida State, with Kansas rallying to within two points at 46-44 midway through the second half. And then, ultimately, it was a game of clutch plays by VCU's senior point guard, Joey Rodriguez.
VCU took Kansas' punches and never fell, constantly making big shots to keep the Jayhawks at bay. Read More >>
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It was Rodriguez, suffering through a poor shooting game, who hit probably the biggest shot and threw definitely the biggest pass of the game. The shot was a 3-pointer with 4:58 left, after Kansas had pulled within 57-52, to make it a much more comfortable 60-52. The pass came three minutes later, when Rodriguez drove into the lane with the shot clock ticking down and placed a soft lob at the rim, where Bradford Burgess was waiting to complete the alley-oop for a 65-57 lead with 1:54 left.
That was the final basket of the game for VCU, the Rams scoring their last six points from the foul line to seal the victory. Jamie Skeen hit the last two to conclude his 26-point, 10-rebound performance that helped offset the work of Kansas' Morris twins -- 33 points, 28 rebounds combined -- and sealed for Skeen the award for Most Outstanding Player of the Southwest Region.
The Morris twins produced, but they didn't shoot well (13 of 31). Other than Tyshawn Taylor, nobody for Kansas shot well. Taylor was 6 of 9 from the floor; the rest of the team was 16 of 54 (29.6 percent). The Jayhawks were especially brutal on 3-pointers, going 2 of 21 (9.5 percent).
"We shot it miserably," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Our guys may have thought they were shooting at the fair, because it was a tight basket."
And it was a tight team. The Jayhawks made only 15 of 28 free throws (53.6 percent) and had more turnovers (14) than assists (10). The Jayhawks grabbed 19 offensive rebounds but turned all of those opportunities into only nine second-chance points, the futility bubbling over with 1:12 to play when the Morris twins combined for three offensive rebounds and three missed shots from point-blank range before Burgess ripped the ball from Markieff Morris' hands. Morris was still on his knees, flailing at the ball, when VCU called timeout. Morris punched the floor so hard, the noise carried almost 90 feet -- and over the din of 14,299 fans -- to my seat at the other end of the court.
The Alamodome was much more peaceful an hour later. The game had long ended, and the Kansas locker room was as quiet as a museum. Young men were crying in there, just as they were crying a year ago after the loss to Northern Iowa. Down the hall, the doors hadn't yet opened to the winning locker room. With the media waiting outside, the door briefly popped open to let an NCAA official leave. In that half-second, an eruption of happy noise came rolling out of the VCU locker room, through the open door, into the rest of the Alamodome.
A few minutes later Shaka Smart was sitting at the podium, smiling.
"We've played our best basketball when it matters most," Smart said. "That's why I'm sitting up here with a net around my neck."
Might not be the last net he wears this season.