NEW YORK (AP) - Melvin Johnson hit the floor, grabbed his left knee and yelled in pain.
The Atlantic 10’s sixth-man of the year was done early in the first half of VCU’s conference semifinal against George Washington - and likely for a lot more than that.
The injury shook up the Rams for a bit, but soon it was “Havoc” as usual for No. 23 VCU and another trip to a conference tournament championship game.
Treveon Graham scored 22 points, Briante Weber added 16, and VCU pressed and pressured its way to a 74-55 victory against the Colonials on Saturday.
Johnson was injured in a scramble for a loose ball about five minutes into the game.
“At that point, you just got to keep playing,” coach Shaka Smart said. “I told the guys, ‘Let’s win this game for Mel,’ and I thought these two (Graham and Weber) and the teammates did a great job staying together, continued to attack and the last six or eight minutes we’re able to extend the lead with our defense.”
Johnson, who is from the Bronx, returned to the bench in the second half with a full leg brace on and crutches. They didn’t keep him from occasionally getting up to cheer for his teammates. And when Weber came out of the game for good, he gave Johnson a big hug.
“When Melvin went out with the injury it really hit us because he’s a great player,” Graham said. “We wanted to really bounce back and get this one for him.”
The second-seeded Rams (26-7) will play for the A-10 title for the second year in a row, facing fourth-seeded St. Joseph’s on Sunday. The Rams lost last year’s final to Saint Louis.
As for Johnson’s status going forward, it didn’t look promising, but Smart tried to keep the mood light.
“Well, first of all, I think it’s important to note Melvin did not pass away today,” Smart deadpanned. “We’re not giving a eulogy. He’s a terrific player, a big part of our team. We’ll find out, diagnose exactly what his injury is moving forward. He’s got a lot of great basketball ahead of him.”
Smart has led the Rams to a conference tournament final in four of his five seasons, first in the Colonial Athletic Association and the past two in the A-10. The victory gave him 137 at VCU, breaking a tie with Sonny Smith to become the winningest coach in the history of the program.
“I congratulate him on his wins and we’re going to give him more wins,” Weber said.
Isaiah Armwood led third-seeded George Washington (24-8) with 15 points.
“It was a pretty good game for about two-thirds of the game,” GW coach Mike Lonergan said.
The Colonials are out, but the season isn’t over. They should be getting a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
“We just don’t want to make the tournament, if there is ever a year that you can advance hopefully this will be the year. I think we’ll be refocused and play a lot better next Thursday,” Lonergan said.
George Washington was able to counter VCU’s “Havoc” full-court pressure for a while with strong inside play from Armwood (5-for-7 shooting) and Kevin Larsen (10 points).
VCU forced 15 turnovers and had seven steals, both below its nation’s best season averages, but the Rams made up for it by shooting better than usual from the outside against GW’s 1-3-1 zone and outrebounding the Colonials (37-28).
Graham was 4 for 6 from 3-point range and Rob Brandenberg was 3 for 6.
“We made the defense be honest and we just attacked,” said Weber, who was 5 for 11 from the field.
Weber made a 3 from the corner to put VCU up 50-45 with 10:30 left and the Rams came up with a steal to break up a George Washington 2-on-1 at the other end. VCU fans love their team’s defense and hustle and that play got the “V-C-U!” chant cranking at Barclays Center.
A block by Mo Alie-Cox on Larsen triggered a VCU break and Graham finished it with a 3 from up top that made the score 60-51 with 5:37 left, prompting a timeout from GW.
Alie-Cox then got into it on the offensive end, tipping in a miss in traffic to make the lead 64-53 with 4:20 left.
Colonials point guard Joe McDonald fouled out with 3:03 left and GW down nine, leaving George Washington to rally against “Havoc” without its most reliable ball-handler.
VCU promptly forced a turnover, Alie-Cox flipped in a one-hander to make it 68-55 with 2:46 left and Rams fans could start making plans for another night celebrating in Brooklyn.
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