The Wizards won on a dramatic Gilbert Arenas three-pointer, the Colonials opened their A-10 schedule with a win over lackluster Fordham, so what did I do last night? Took my boys a battle of two Local Poll Top Ten teams - Virginia Commonwealth and Towson University; the Doc, having had quite enough of the recent sports bonanza that the holidays brought, scheduled a massage. So, after the fellas finished swim practice, we scooted across campus to the Towson Center. Thanks to my friend D-Fly, we had some quality seats a few rows behind the Towson bench, which we settled into just as the opening tip went up.
A typical "students-on-break" crowd scattered comfortably around the arena, including a surprisingly large contingent of the Towson Pep Band; alas, no sign of the national champion dance team. Several other cliches of the college basketball crowd were present, including the large, loud and increasingly profane fan a few rows behind us and the "wacky student who is not nearly as amusing as he thinks he is," in front of us.
Early on, the visiting Rams showed why they have risen as high as #3 in my rankings, with a bruising interior defense and challenging fullcourt pressure that took advantage of the limited availability of Towson point guard C. C. Williams, who has played only 11 minutes in the last two games because of illness. When Towson was able to get the ball across midcourt, they relied on leading scorer Gary Neal and also got a couple threes from sophomore Tim Crossin. The Rams also struggled to hang onto the ball, committing 10 first half turnovers, but solid contributions from their second unit resulted in a 25-20 halftime lead. As the teams jogged to the locker rooms, Cursing Fan exhorted Towson coach Pat Kennedy to "Wake their asses up!"
The Rams' first-year head coach Anthony Grant, a Billy Donovan protege (how old does that make you feel?), wisely focused his defensive strategy on Neal, the only Towson player who averages double figures in scoring (24 ppg). At 6-5, 200, Neal is the Arenas of the CAA, complete with Agent Zero's range, confidence and conscience. The Ram defense did everything they could to discourage him and his teammates, closing in on any Tiger who challenged the lane. "Better be plenty of ice in the training room," I remarked as several bodies collided near the basket, again.
At the half, we beat the rush to the concession stand and fueled up with some hotdogs and pretzels; and I set out to find the athletic director from VCU, a college friend of my brother's. He was seated near the team bench just in front of a vocal group that had travelled from Richmond, including their own "Wacky Student" in a Rams jersey and headband. Who knew you could buy such items?
At the start of the second half, Towson continued to settle for long jumpers and VCU began to pull away a little, stretching the lead to eight on the shoulders of their balanced, three-guard attack. But after the first media timeout, the Tigers' Tommy Breaux sent TU's Wacky Student into paroxysms with an ESPN-worthy block and dunk, and when Neal followed with a three, the Tigers had captured the momentum, but not the lead. As the clocked ticked toward the 12:00 mark, Kennedy subbed Neal out, figuring to rest his star through the upcoming timeout. In Neal's absence, either VCU relaxed or the Tigers stepped up because the next three Towson possessions resulted in baskets from inside ten feet, and when Neal returned, his team led by three.
But the Rams were not ready to roll over. They continued to pressure the ball and crash the offensive boards. Close games as are often decided by free throws, and this one could have been, except that nobody made them; VCU missed five straight in the last two minutes and Towson's Dennard Abraham managed only 1-2 with a chance to boost the lead to three with 19 seconds left. Down by two, Jesse Pellot-Rosa drove baseline, drew a foul and tied the game by finally making two from the line. Overtime.
We hustled down for a quick bathroom break, where I saw the VCU AD. "What do you think?" he asked. "Tough way to make a living," I replied. "And both teams could use a free throw coach."
Overtime could not have started better for Towson as Neal chucked in a trey and was fouled, but he missed the freebie. The Tigers clung to the lead thanks to some clutch shooting by Neal and Dennard, whose free throw pushed the margin to four with less than a minute. But then VCU drew a foul and made two, forced a bad pass by Neal and scored again to tie it. Neal could not escape the VCU defense on the last possession and Rocky Coleman's shot went awry.
Double overtime! Wacky Student was aghast! Cursing Fan had long since abandoned creativity and launched a continuous assault of cluster F-bombs. I called the Doc, "We're going to be home a little late."
Again the OT began with a Towson three, this one from Crossin, but Pellot-Rosa drew Breaux's fifth foul on the next possession. Kennedy chose to go small with freshman Rodney Spruill, but youth was not served. Spruill missed a shot, mishandled a bad pass from Coleman and fouled Pellot Rosa, not exactly the spark his coach was looking for. By the time senior forward Winstonn Tubbs came in for him, VCU had grabbed the lead. Towson took it right back as Neal scored twice to go up three, but VCU caught them celebrating and Walker knocked down a quick three to tie it with 1:47 left. Neal answered with a "No, no, no, Yes!" trey of his own, but the Rams again drove for a quick score. Towson milked the clock but failed to get a good shot and Walker drained another three to put the Rams ahead 82-80.
On the final possession, Neal worked himself free at the top of the key with about eight seconds left. He fought through a double team, elevated into the lane ... and short-armed the jumper, didn't even draw iron. Maybe he was expecting more contact, there had certainly been plenty as he initiated his drive, but VCU grabbed the airball, and made the ensuing free throws to ice the game.
Neal finished with 36 points, including six threes, but VCU's defense, depth, and mental toughhness proved to be too much for the hosts. The Rams are 5-0 on the road this year (1-2 at neutral sites) and they seem to have figured out how to get that extra effort it takes to get the job done. Towson has a tremendous asset in Neal and some nice complimentary players, but when Breaux fouled out, VCU penetrated easily. The Rams and Drexel look like the teams to beat in the CAA, but Towson should be in the second tier with Hofstra, Old Dominion, and William and Mary (suddenly the league's hottest team). Not that I anticipate a change in the FitzFacts subtitle, but living only 15 minutes away, I'm hoping to see a few more Towson games this year. I'll keep you posted.