January 28, 2011

DAY AT THE RACES: RAMS TAKE CAA LEAD

THE AROUND THE HORNS DAILY BLOG

By Chris Kowalczyk

RICHMOND, Va. – If VCU's Thursday night's nationally televised contest with Hofstra was supposed to be a "statement" game, the statement the Rams delivered to the upstart Pride was simply, "get the heck off of my lawn!"
 
VCU thumped Hofstra, led by reigning CAA Player of the Year Charles Jenkins 82-67 Thursday night in front of a frenzied, season-high crowd of 7,208 at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. The win vaulted the Rams (17-5, 9-1 CAA) into sole possession of first place in the Colonial Athletic Association. It is VCU's eighth straight victory overall and the 21st in a row at the increasingly impenetrable Siegel Center.
 
In a showdown of first place squads, VCU looked a cut above. The Rams took the lead for good early in the first half and never looked back. They led by as many as 22 points before backing off the accelerator in the closing minutes.
 
The Rams, never ones to shy away from fast break basketball, seemed to find a willing participant in Hofstra (14-7, 8-2 CAA). VCU pushed a frenetic pace in the first half, scoring its most points (48) in a period since opening night on the way to a 48-33 lead at intermission.
 
Junior Bradford Burgess, who finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, says the Rams were happy to run with the Pride.
 
"Hofstra has some good athletes and they have the ability to run with us but that's not really their style, playing the whole 40 minutes like that," Burgess said. "That's our style and towards the end of the game they started to wear down a little bit and it just paid off. "
 
Jenkins, the nation's third-leading scorer, pumped in 15-first half points, but could do little to slow the VCU attack. The Rams scored every way imaginable, inside, outside and at the free throw line. Senior Jamie Skeen gouged the Pride for 13 points in 13 minutes before he had to exit with two fouls. Skeen hit 5-of-7 first half shots, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the period.
 
The Pride pulled within 18-17 with 10:43 remaining in the half, only to have the Rams embark on an 11-3 burst. After closing to within 33-28 with 6:01 showing on a Jenkins 3-pointer, and with Skeen on the bench, VCU finished the half with a 15-5 flurry. Hofstra never recovered.
 
"We had a critical spurt in the latter part of the first half where [Darius] Theus was in the game and [Bradford] Burgess and those guys were all over the place," said VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. "We were getting to the basket at will. That's what allowed us to take the lead into halftime."
 
"Their transition offense was terrific tonight," commented Hofstra first-year Coach Mo Cassera. "They beat us down the floor a few times and we told our team we can't get into a real race with this team up and down. We're not going to win that, ultimately."
 
The Rams used a balanced offensive attack and a kept Jenkins within check on the way to victory. Senior Ed Nixon, who also scored 14 points, was the Rams primary defender on Jenkins. While he didn't shut the explosive, and likely future NBA guard, down, Nixon kept the damage minimal. Jenkins finished with 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting, both below his season averages.
 
"Jenkins is a tough, tough player," Nixon said. "I just tried to play defense. I tried to push him where the help was and just try to keep him from getting into the lane and make him settle for jump shots."
 
In the second half, the solidly-built Skeen backed down slender Hofstra forward Greg Washington with ease. In the meantime, VCU was wearing down Jenkins with its pace and full court press. According to Smart, the Rams also began trapping Jenkins off of ball screens, forcing the senior guard to pass to teammates. Jenkins scored just five second half points.
 
VCU and Hofstra do not meet again in the regular season, so the Rams have earned a tiebreaker over the Pride, as well as their current position in the standings. What shouldn't go unnoticed, however, is how critical Thursday's game was because of Hofstra's schedule down the stretch. The Rams' final eight league games include two contests with James Madison, as well as a game at Drexel and home dates with George Mason and Old Dominion. The Pride, meanwhile, have just two games against the CAA's current top six the rest of the way.
 
NOTES

Skeen, who finished with 18 points in 21 minutes, left the game with what was tentatively labeled a sprained left knee. Skeen received treatment after the game and wasn't available to the media. His status is up in the air… Freshman Juvonte Reddic scored a season-high 13 points and grabbed five rebounds… Hofstra is 0-8 all-time at the Seigel Center… Burgess' 14 rebounds are a career-high… sophomore Troy Daniels hit 3-of-5 3-pointers in the game and is 10-of-20 from beyond the arc in the Rams' last six games.
 
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