RICHMOND, Va. – For nearly two years, Head Coach Shaka Smart of the Virginia Commonwealth University has preached a "Wreaking Havoc" style of play. To be a championship caliber team, his Ram squad needed to show the ability to win low-scoring, grind it out games.
On Saturday, in the Colonial Athletic Association opener, the Black & Gold did exactly that with a 59-55 victory over a hard-nosed William & Mary team in front of nearly 6,500 at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.
"I'm proud of the way our team battled back after a tough first half and showed enough resolve to win against a good William & Mary team," Smart said. "William & Mary is such a tough team to play against because of their style and to be able to come out with a win to start the conference year is always a positive."
Senior Joey Rodriguez drilled three shots from beyond the arc en route to a team-high 13 points, along with dishing out three assists and one steal. Classmate Jamie Skeen was the other Ram in double-figures with 12 points and seven rebounds.
The defensive pressure of the Black & Gold forced 16 turnovers and held the Tribe to 38.6% from the field, including just 33.3% from beyond the arc.
"We're going to win a lot of games if we get that type of defensive effort on a nightly basis," Smart said. "Now the offensive end was a different story. We had a tough shooting night and didn't execute the way we have shown this year, but that will come, I'm sure of it."
The first half was an offensive struggle with the Tribe taking an early seven-point lead, 18-11, after Brandon Britt knocked down consecutive free-throws with 12:33 left in the first half.
A drive to the basket by senior Brandon Rozzell brought the Rams within three, but Quinn McDowell would take over and lead the Tribe on a 11-3 run to claim a 30-19 lead with 3:10 remaining before halftime.
However, Rodriguez would ignite a run for the Rams with two three-pointers to send VCU into the break only down three, 32-29.
"We just didn't do our jobs in the first half," Skeen said. "We were well coached and well prepared coming in, but we just didn't execute, particularly on the glass. I know I let an offensive rebound happen right in front of me. I'm not sure exactly why we didn't have the focus in the first half, but that will change, I promise you that."
William & Mary showed it wasn't going to go away connecting on back-to-back buckets to take a 37-29 lead less than a minute into the second half.
That's when the Rams turned up the pressure and freshman Rob Brandenburg's energy off the bench allowed VCU to take it's first lead of the game on his free-throws with 13:02 left in the contest.
"We know what we're going to get from Rob and that's a lot of energy and quickness on the defensive end," Smart said. "He's going to have a great career here, but in this first year there's going to be a lot of good things and definitely sometimes where he'll show he's still a freshman. We're just excited about what's to come with him."
The Rams would never give up the lead over the final 13 minutes, holding on with a clutch three-pointer from junior Bradford Burgess and three free-throws from Skeen to put the seal the 59-55 win.
"It's a great thing to start 1-0 in the conference and be able to sit on the win for a month. We were on the other end of that last year and it wasn't fun sitting at 0-1 for a month," Smart said. "I'm pleased that we get to start this way, but we also know there is a lot to work on."
VCU will return to action at the Siegel Center on Wednesday night as they host in-state rival VMI for only the second-time in school history. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.