By Chris Kowalczyk
Shaka Smart tried to get away from basketball for a couple of days to enjoy the holidays. He spent some time with his wife, Maya, time which is precious in the middle of basketball season. They caught a couple of movies, but it was hard for Smart to keep the coach in him at bay. Every once in a while he found his mind wandering, and he'd shake his head and kick himself.
The feeling was much the same for Joey Rodriguez. Following VCU's jarring, 68-65, loss at UAB on Dec. 21, in which the Rams watched a nine-point lead disintegrate with two minutes to go, Rodriguez and his father, Joe, drove eight hours from Birmingham, Ala. to family's home in Merritt Park, Fla. In the dark of the night, they talked, and talked, and then talked some more, and tried to hammer out solutions to the younger Rodriguez's recent struggles.
"It was bad," Joey Rodriguez said of the loss. "Lot of people frustrated, some tears in the locker room. It hurt a lot. We want to win. It's not like we're going out there trying to lose. We thought we played so well. For the first 30-35 minutes, that was our best game of the year on both ends of the floor. Just letting it slip away like that really hurt. It was probably one of the worst losses I've had here."
Smart and Rodriguez returned to the court Wednesday from their heavy-hearted holidays with a renewed spirit and helped the Rams hold off a tough Wofford squad for a 75-66 win in the Richmond Marriott Holidays on the Hardwood Classic.
VCU (8-4) led by as many as nine points Wednesday, but the Terriers rallied to tie game at 64-64 with four minutes remaining. Rather than suffer the same fate as they did in Birmingham eight days earlier, the Rams buckled down on the defensive end and knocked down four critical free throws to secure a much-needed win.
Rodriguez was just 1-of-4 from the field and committed six turnovers against the Blazers, his second straight forgettable performance. But on Wednesday, the VCU point guard turned in an efficient, 10-point, three-assist, one-turnover effort against Wofford, the reigning Southern Conference champions and odds-on favorites to repeat.
Playing in the 114th game of his career, Rodriguez has felt few losses as crippling as VCU's defeat at the hands of UAB, but rather than focus on what he can no longer change, he hopes the team can benefit from the experience.
"We talked about when we got back [from Christmas] how good we played for 30-35 minutes of that game. It's something that we could build on. It stung. It stung a lot," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes you need things like that to bring things closer together and to build on things. I thought that loss helped us tonight with how we came out and battled on both ends of the floor. Wofford made some tough shots and I thought tonight was probably our second best defensive game of the year."
The Terriers (5-7) knotted the score at 64-all on a Noah Dahlman layup with 4:06 remaining, but were just 1-of-7 the rest of the way.
In the meantime, the Rams received five clutch points from senior Brandon Rozzell, including a go-ahead 3-pointer to answer Dahlman's bucket with 3:52 showing. Rozzell, who also hit big shots in wins over VMI and William & Mary this season, feels like the key to VCU's late game performance is in the head.
"Sometimes we make a bad play on the offensive end and come down and it affects our defense," said Rozzell, who poured in a game-high 18 points Wednesday. "But today we stuck together when we turned it over on the inbounds pass and got a stop and knocked down the free throws. It's all about our mental state of mind going into the winning possession of the game."
For Rodriguez, finding himself meant getting back to basics and enjoying basketball. That was his dad's message and one he took to heart.
"It's about having fun," Joey Rodriguez said. "It's my senior year. He was thinking I was stressing and wasn't enjoying it with finals and not playing well at all. He just told me to come out here and have fun and I thought that talk I had with him and that talk I had with the coaches really helped me."
As Rodriguez goes, it appears so go the Rams. The 5-10 guard opened the season with a flourish, averaging nearly 18 points and 10 assists in his first three games. But recently, injuries and frustration have piled up. Rodriguez averaged 7.5 points, 2.9 assists and shot .292 (14-of-48) in the six games prior to Wednesday. The Rams were 3-3 in those six games. Although he didn't deliver a spectacular display, he didn't have to, giving a balanced VCU attack just enough points, just enough passing and just enough soul.
"At the end there I thought we could've folded like we did against UAB," Rodriguez said. "Just because of a couple of turnovers we let it affect our defense, but I thought tonight we got turnovers and we came together and communicated more and got some stops at the end of the game and some big rebounds."