By Chris Kowalczyk
RICHMOND, Va. – When Old Dominion captured the Colonial Athletic Association Championship last year, Joey Rodriguez made sure to cut out the newspaper article and save it. It wasn't a souvenir as much as it was a painful reminder.
ODU, on the way to that victory, shredded a 12-point VCU second-half lead in the semifinals. Rodriguez didn't want to forget, and kept the article in his room all season. Sunday, when the Rams stormed to a 14-point halftime lead, Rodriguez wasn't going to get comfortable. He retrieved the article from his backpack as a reminder to himself and his teammates.
That message was heard loud and clear, as VCU held to upset the 25th-ranked and top-seeded George Mason Patriots, 79-63 in a CAA Tournament semifinal Sunday at the Richmond Coliseum. The win sends the Rams to the CAA Championship on Monday for the fifth time since 2004.
VCU built a 39-25 halftime advantage behind lights-out 3-point shooting, but George Mason, winners of 16 straight games, closed within 40-33 on a triple from the wing by Cam Long with 18:09 left in the game. VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart used a timeout to calm the troops.
"He told us that he knew they were going to make a run. They're too good a team not to make a run," Rodriguez said. "They weren't just going to back down, so we just needed to show resolve and rebounding and defense was going to keep our lead so that's what we did."
The Patriots (26-6) never got closer than seven the rest of the way as VCU stayed on the attack and dug in on defense.
The Rams' 3-point shooting, which had largely deserted VCU in recent weeks, came alive early on Sunday. VCU hit 9-of-18 3-pointers in the first half, including 3-of-4 by senior forward Jamie Skeen, to grab a 39-25 halftime advantage. Skeen, who hit a game-winning layup as time expired in the Rams' 62-60 win over Drexel on Saturday, led all scorers with 21 points. He hit 4-of-6 3-pointers in the game.
"I've never taken six 3-pointers in a game in my life, not even in AAU," said Skeen.
"We were using a lot of ball screens and when we're using ball screens, we have guys who can shoot," Rodriguez said. "If they weren't going to come and hedge and stay with me, then guys were going to be open. Guys were really unselfish today, made the extra pass and made shots."
VCU finished with 11 threes on 25 attempts. George Mason, meanwhile, was frustrated by VCU's mixture of two different zone defenses, as well as some man-to-man coverage. The Patriots were 6-of-25 from long distance.
The first half was a lesson in sharing, as VCU handed out 13 assists on its first 14 field goals. The Rams finished with 17 on 24 makes in the game.
The Rams' victory was all the more stunning because of Mason's 71-51 pasting of VCU at the Siegel Center on Feb. 15. In that game, George Mason jumped on the Rams early and never let off the gas. But Sunday, it was VCU that came out swinging.
The Patriots entered the game riding the nation's longest winning streak, bulldozing opponents with ease. During its quarterfinal game with Georgia State on Saturday, George Mason fell behind, 27-16, before using a 42-9 run to dispatch the Panthers. Despite those intimidating facts, VCU came out loose and played arguably its best half of basketball this season.
"It was embarrassing," Rodriguez said of VCU's loss to George Mason on Feb. 15. "Right after the game, we wanted this game. A lot of people didn't want to play them, but we wanted to play them. We're really competitive and we wanted to play them."
"In my own mind, it's because of the way we played them down there," said George Mason Head Coach Jim Larranaga. "We had a great start and a 15-point lead at halftime and players react to that. They're great competitors and they said, 'hey, we can't let that happen again. We've got to play harder defense, shoot the ball better and pretty soon your team plays like that."
In addition to Skeen, VCU got another blue collar performance from junior Bradford Burgess, who scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Rodriguez, plagued by seven turnovers on Saturday, had just two on the way to a 13-point, four-assist performance.
NOTES: VCU and George Mason have met in the CAA Tournament five times, all VCU victories. VCU has eliminated the Patriots from the tournament in four of the last five years… VCU and Old Dominion have met in the CAA Tournament Championship Game once before, a 73-66 overtime victory for the Monarchs in 2005.