- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2011

SAN ANTONIO | The video played over and over on the big-screen television in the center of the locker room, telling Virginia Commonwealth University’s basketball team they weren’t good enough to be here. One minute and 30 seconds of everyone from President Obama to Dick Vitale picking Kansas.

“Kansas, Kansas, Kansas,” blared from the speakers in a drumbeat that drowned out conversation.

No one cared. VCU laughed, snapped pictures, got teary-eyed, high-fived and occasionally slipped glances at the video loop on the big screen. It was nothing more than a punchline because VCU is going to the Final Four.

The team that wasn’t even supposed to be in the NCAA tournament shocked top-seeded Kansas 71-61 in the Southwest Regional final Sunday afternoon. In a five-game run that’s turned the improbable to ordinary, VCU (28-11) surprised everyone outside its Alamodome locker room.

“Once again, nobody really thought we could win,” said VCU coach Shaka Smart, the net dangling around his neck. “Nobody else really matters, what they think. … Our team has done a phenomenal job of putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job.”

VCU, which faces Butler in Houston on Saturday, wasn’t as big, quick or touted as Kansas, the last No. 1 seed left in the tournament. The arena sounded like Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, with only a sliver of black-and-yellow-clad VCU supporters wedged in a corner.

None of that mattered.

In the first half, VCU drained nine 3-pointers and built an 18-point lead. The team averaged 8.4 threes per game during the season. The nonstop movement of VCU’s full-court press and up-tempo offense left Kansas tired, frustrated and out of sync.

“We wore them out,” senior Joey Rodriguez said.

When Kansas roared back in the second half, Rodriguez stood in their way. He’s the smallest player on the court, a 5-foot-10 ball of energy who wasn’t even recruited by colleges in his native Florida.

But against Kansas’ collection of top-100 recruits, Rodriguez took control of the game down the stretch. Taking heed of assistant coach Mike Rhodes’ halftime instruction to change speeds, Rodriguez fed senior Jamie Skeen for a layup.

Then Rodriguez sank a 3-pointer coming off Skeen’s screen. And Rodriguez took the ball to the basket on the next possession, holding it until the last possible second before kicking it to Bradford Burgess for another 3-pointer.

Minutes earlier, Kansas had sliced VCU’s advantage to two points. That was long gone.

“He’s the best true point guard in the nation,” senior Ed Nixon said, then turned his head and spotted the video.

“I’d be shocked, shocked, very shocked if they beat the Jayhawks,” Nixon crooned in his best Vitale imitation.

But the ones shocked were the Jayhawks (35-3), ranked second in the country. They missed 13 free throws and shot only 2-for-21 from beyond the arc. Walking off the court, Marcus Morris, who scored 20 points, tried to pull his jersey over his face and hide the tears.

After the final buzzer sounded, Burgess raced past the 14 police officers and 12 event staff keeping VCU supporters in the bleachers to embrace his father, Keith. Bearing an armload of white championship T-shirts, Rodriguez perched on a railing and teetered on the edge of falling into the crowd.

Skeen, who scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, sat the championship trophy on the media table for a radio interview, with instructions to keep it safe.

And when Smart stepped onto the podium set up in the middle of the court, he took a microphone and looked straight at the few hundred screaming fans.

“There’s one last thing,” Smart told the crowd. “We’re not done yet.”

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