AKRON, Ohio – Great teams always find ways to win.
That's what the VCU men's basketball team did when senior Bradford Burgess connected with junior Darius Theus for the game-winning lay-up with :02.1 remaining to give the Rams their seventh straight victory with a 76-75 defeat of Akron. It marks the fifth time in the past six seasons that the Rams have put together a win streak of seven games or more.
"That was a terrific college basketball game between two teams that were determined not to lose," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "I have a ton of respect for Keith and the program here at Akron and it says a lot about our group of guys to show the will they did on a night when things weren't necessarily going our way. I'm extremely proud of the resolve we showed tonight in a tough atmosphere."
The stage was set for the Rams, down 75-74, with the last possession of overtime in their hands. Burgess drove the lane and found a cutting Theus, who laid in a basket with :02.1 left to send the Black & Gold back to Richmond with a victory.
"We actually didn't run the play to perfection, but Brad did a good job of getting in the lane and they kind of lost track of Darius," Smart said. "Brad was able to see Darius get loose and made a nice pass that Darius was able to lay in before [Zeke] Marshall got over."
Burgess led the Rams offensively with 19 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two assists. Freshman Briante Weber, who was celebrating his 19th birthday, finished with a jack-of-all trades line with 11 points, five rebounds, five steals and four assists. Rob Brandenberg and Theus were the other two Rams in double figures with 11 and 10 points respectively.
"Coach always talks about playing against adversity and battling through it and I thought that's what we were able to do tonight," Burgess said. "This was a big team win for us to play against a good opponent at their place and find a way to win. That's what it's all about, finding ways to win."
After both teams got early baskets, Theus capped off a 9-0 VCU run with a jumper from the right wing that gave the Black & Gold a 15-8 lead with 12:40 remaining in the first half. Akron responded with a 13-1 run of their own to grab a 21-16 advantage.
Back and forth it went through the first half with four ties and seven lead changes before the Zips connected on a couple late three-pointers to take a 36-32 cushion into the break.
The Rams trimmed the lead to two, but back-to-back three-pointers from Chauncey Gilliam and Alex Abreu ignited an 8-0 run to give the Zips their first double-digit lead of the contest. The lead grew to as many as 12 before VCU locked in on the glass.
At one point, VCU was facing a double-digit deficit on the board, but the Rams attacked the glass late and found themselves in a tie game at 65-65 with less than three minutes to play.
Theus drove the lane and found Burgess in the left corner for a wide-open three pointer to give VCU their first lead since early in the first half at 68-65. However, Akron responded with an old-fashioned three-point play by Nikola Cvetinovic to even the score.
Quincy Diggs connected on a lay-up with 34 seconds remaining, but freshman Treveon Graham was fouled late and drilled both free-throws to send the game into overtime.
The Black & Gold would hold the Zips without a field goal in overtime, but four consecutive free-throws by Zeke Marshall gave Akron a 75-74 lead to set-up the final play by Burgess and Theus.
It was the first overtime game for VCU since their dramatic 72-71 win over Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen last March.
The glass was huge for the Rams, who ended up winning the rebounding battle 36-35, including 15 offensive boards. Sophomore D.J. Haley was the biggest force down low with seven points and four rebounds against Marshall, who is a highly-touted NBA prospect.
With the victory, this year's team becomes just the fourth squad in school history to post an undefeated December. They joined the 2007-08, 1980-81 and 1977-78 teams in going unbeaten in the calendar's final month.
VCU now enters CAA play with a 10-3 overall mark and heads to Hofstra for a 7 p.m. tip on Monday evening.