CHICAGO (AP) — Oh yeah, VCU belongs in the NCAA tournament. The real question now: Who can stop the Rams?
Fresh, fast, furious and at times flawless, VCU didn’t look a bit like a team playing its third game in five nights. The Rams pressured Purdue, broke through its defense for numerous layups, and overwhelmed the third-seeded Boilermakers of the Big Ten 94-76 Sunday night to earn their first trip to the round of 16.
As their fans chanted “VCU, VCU,” players hugged and celebrated on the floor of the United Center. What a trip — what a week — it has been. Now it’s on to San Antonio for the 11th-seeded Rams (26-11) to play the winner of Notre Dame-Florida State on Friday in the Southwest regional semifinals.
It was just a week ago the Rams received an at-large bid to the disbelief of some critics. Shuttled off to Dayton for a first-round game, they beat Southern Cal on Wednesday, got into Chicago in the wee hours Thursday, routed Georgetown on Friday and then did the same to the Boilermakers.
“A week ago, we thought we were done,” said the relentless point guard Joey Rodriguez, who had 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes.
“And now, we’re here in the Sweet 16. Anything can happen now.”
Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose Boilermakers (26-8) were denied a third straight trip to the round of 16, agreed.
“If you watched VCU a certain time in the season you wouldn’t see what you just watched out there,” Painter said. “Then you watch them during a four- or five-game stretch and you literally think, ‘They can beat any team in the country.’ … I made that statement — VCU can beat any team in the country on a neutral court. And I believe that. … I was hoping that team wouldn’t show up, but that team from VCU did show up.”
Bradford Burgess scored 23 points to lead a balanced offense, and the Rams’ depth wore the Boilermakers down in the second half when the lead reached 20 points.
“It wasn’t easy. We just made plays out there. You see all these guys on TV, and we’re watching them all year and in our heads, we’re like, ‘Man, we can play with these guys,’” Rodriguez said.
“We’re getting the opportunity now and we’re proving it.”
VCU finished with 26 assists to just four turnovers. The Rams didn’t hesitate to pop up 3-pointers — making 8 of 21 — but they also took it inside against Big Ten Player of the Year JaJuan Johnson, challenging the 6-foot-10 center.
“We made him work for everything he got,” said VCU coach Shaka Smart, noting that Johnson appeared to tire a bit.
Johnson did finish with 25 points and 14 rebounds in the final game of a stellar career.
“Honestly it was just one of those nights. Basic principles that we didn’t execute on and that’s all on us, taking nothing away from VCU,” Johnson said.
But VCU really stopped the Boilermakers’ other star, E’Twaun Moore, holding him to 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting. That’s eight points below his average. Ryne Smith had 20 for Purdue, hitting 6-of-8 on 3-pointers.
“Our guys have worked together all year long. They shared the basketball. I think we found a high level of defensive energy these last several games and that’s what has allowed us to advance,” Smart said.
“We just had to have everyone on the same page and everyone going in the same direction. … I’m just so happy for our guys.”
Jamie Skeen added 13 points and freshman Juvonte Reddic had 12. The Rams shot 57 percent.
“I feel like all teams are equal. It’s not just about the conference and how big the conference is and all that other stuff,” Skeen said.
“We’re all just as good. It’s just basketball, man. I know you have your All-Americans, like you had two All-Americans out there, but it’s a team game. If you jell as a team like we did today, you can beat anybody.”
VCU led by 10 at the half. Reddic had six points early in the second half when the speedy Rams foiled a comeback by the Boilermakers by consistently getting open for short shots inside.
And after a timeout and a Boilermakers miss, Rodriguez didn’t hesitate from way beyond the top of the key, sinking an NBA-length 3-pointer and putting the Rams up 59-44. VCU hit seven of its first eight shots in the second half to keep up what it started in the first.
When Burgess drove for a layup and then got open and sank a 3-pointer, he put the Rams ahead by 19 with just more than 11 minutes left.
“It’s VCU against the world,” said the 6-foot-9 Skeen. “Nobody else thought we could do this. Nobody else’s bracket said that we’re going to make it to the Sweet 16. Honestly, if it was me and I was just a regular person, I wouldn’t put VCU in the Sweet 16. Who would have thought?”