Rhode Island edges VCU 70-63 to claim A-10 title, NCAA berth
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley made his players watch a version of the "One Shining Moment" video that runs at the end of every NCAA Tournament just hours before the Rams took on Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic-10 title game on Sunday.
Hurley's message to his team was clear: don't leave the opportunity to make an appearance in the 2017 edition up the mood of the selection committee.
"It's the only time we talked about `the bubble," junior guard E.C. Matthews said.
And the only time they'll have to.
Matthews finished with 19 points, including a decisive runner with 55 seconds to play that lifted Rhode Island to a 70-63 victory over the Rams to secure the A-10's automatic bid and leave Sunday night's selection show as a time of celebration instead of worry.
Rhode Island (24-9), the fourth seed, limited VCU (26-8) to just 31 percent shooting (21 of 67) and never trailed to earn a spot on college basketball's biggest stage for the first time since Lamar Odom led the way in 1999. The Rams earned an 11th seed in the Midwest Region and will play Creighton (25-9) in Sacramento, California on Friday.
"We needed a win like this," Hurley said. "We needed a bid to kind of set our fan base on fire to take things to the next level."
A level Rhode Island has spent Hurley's five seasons steadily climbing to, though not without setbacks. Poised to make a move last season, instead Rhode Island stumbled to 17-15. The Rams were a trendy pick this winter but found themselves reeling a bit after a 10-point loss to Fordham on Feb. 15 left them at just 8-5 in the conference.
Rhode Island hasn't lost since. The 40-minute defensive clinic against VCU was the program's eighth straight victory. The Rams led all the way in the title game and trailed for just 43 seconds across 120 minutes in the tournament.
"They (VCU) like to bully teams but our mindset was to try to come out and be the bullies today," Rhode Island forward Hassan Martin said.
JeQuan Lewis led VCU with 15 points and Justin Tillman had 10 points and 17 rebounds but VCU struggled to get anything going against a team that led the A-10 in every major defensive category, including points against and field goal percentage defense. VCU had no trouble chasing down missed shots while grabbing 23 offensive rebounds, but all those extra looks resulted in just 14 second-chance points.
"It's deflating when you miss," VCU coach Will Wade said. "They're the one team, we're usually doing that to everybody else but they're the one team that's as long and as physical as we are."
The loss didn't affect VCU's chances of making the dance. The Rams are the 10th seed in the West Region and will play seventh-seeded Saint Mary's (28-4) in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
VCU was pushed to overtime by third-seeded Richmond in the semifinals on Saturday while Rhode Island cruised by ninth-seeded Davidson. VCU looked out of it early, missing 4 of 22 shots to start the game while falling behind by 17.
Lewis settled down after the break and spearheaded a VCU rally, but each time Rhode Island responded, the last coming when Matthews drove the left side and threw up a runner from about 8 feet that gave Rhode Island a 66-61 lead with 55 seconds to go. VCU missed three straight shots on the ensuing possession before a layup by Tillman trimmed the deficit to three.
Terrell and Matthews went 4 for 4 from the free throw line in the final 34 seconds, leaving Matthews - named the tournament's most outstanding player - to overcome his fear of heights by scaling a ladder to cut down the nets.
Rhode Island: The Rams are dancing at last and considering the talent returning next season could be muscling its way alongside VCU and Dayton as A-10 royalty.
VCU: The Rams are still in solid shape ahead of the brackets being announced, though their inability to dictate tempo or pace in the semifinals and finals will be something to work on ahead of the postseason. VCU forced just six turnovers Sunday, less than half the season average of 14.9.
LOVING THE `BURGH
Hurley certainly loves playing in Pennsylvania's second-biggest city. While coaching Wagner in 2011 he guided an upset of Pittsburgh, a victory that helped launch his coaching career. The Rams stayed in the same hotel as Wagner did six years ago and Hurley's hotel room number was 1115, a combination of his brother Bobby's college number at Duke and his own at Seton Hall.
"I don't want to leave Pittsburgh," Hurley said. "I love it here."
Rhode Island: Will try to top Creighton for first NCAA victory since reaching the Elite Eight in 1998.
VCU: A win over Saint Mary's would give the Rams at least one NCAA victory in five of the last seven seasons.
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Updated March 12, 2017