- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2015

When a timeout was called Saturday afternoon, Shaka Smart leapt off the sideline and walked out onto the court, heading straight for point guard JeQuan Lewis and giving him a hug.

Moments earlier, Lewis had weaved through the paint and kicked the ball into the corner, where Doug Brooks was waiting to knock down an open 3-pointer. It was just like Smart and No. 20 Virginia Commonwealth drew it up. And it was like that for much of the second half at Charles E. Smith Center.

An exciting, back-and-forth game turned into an offensive clinic for the Rams, who used a second-half surge to pull away from George Washington and win, 79-66.

Melvin Johnson led VCU with 17 points, and Brooks finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. After missing the previous two games with an ankle injury, leading scorer Treveon Graham returned to the starting lineup and added 10 points.

Saturday’s game wasn’t nearly as lopsided as the first meeting between the two teams, which VCU won 72-48 in Richmond, but the Rams weren’t going to be picky. After losing senior leader Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury, they had lost three of their previous four games, including a crushing double-overtime loss to La Salle on Wednesday.



“We really talked about responding after our last game,” Smart said. “You can’t get that one back. You’ve got to respond. And I think the way our guys responded today shows a lot about their character as individuals and also as a team.”

The win helped VCU stay in a tie atop the Atlantic 10 with a 9-3 record while simultaneously knocking George Washington to the fringe of NCAA tournament contention. The Colonials, who had their 12-game home winning streak snapped Saturday, have now lost four of five games dating to Jan. 27. Junior Patricio Garino led the way with 22 points.

George Washington shot 59 percent in the first half and 33 percent in the second.

“I think some of it was [their defense], but I think a lot of it was we missed open shots,” coach Mike Lonergan said. “We missed some open shots, and they made open shots. We gave them too many open shots. They took advantage of it.”

Brooks and Johnson did most of the damage from beyond the arc. Johnson was hot early, hitting three 3-pointers in the opening 10 minutes, and Brooks took over in the second half. Together they made 9 of 14 shots from 3-point range.

Graham only made one three, but it might have been the most important one of the game. After VCU turned a halftime tie into a sizable lead midway through the second half, the Colonials began to make a push of their own. Gario scored nine of George Washington’s 10 points in one stretch, including two free throws.

Then the Rams pushed the ball downcourt and left it for a trailing Graham, who knocked down the straightaway three and put the momentum squarely back in VCU’s favor.

“I really thought Shaka should’ve rested [Graham] one more game,” Lonergan said with a smile. “I thought he killed us. Even though he had [only] 10 points, he’s a threat.”

Smart said Graham, a candidate for Atlantic 10 player of the year honors, was not 100 percent healthy Saturday. In fact, he might not be 100 percent healthy again this season. But his presence alone made a significant impact on the game by drawing the attention of George Washington’s defense, thereby creating space for other players.

“I’ve overheard teams talk about ‘deny him’ or ‘stay attached to the shooter,’” Johnson explained. “Now, Treveon has the ball, you might want to gravitate more towards him, which opens up the floor for guys like me and Doug.”

Smart said Graham also gives the Rams a psychological lift.

“He gives us just a calming presence before he even touches the ball or shoots the ball,” Smart said. “I think these guys feel more comfortable when he’s out there. I certainly do.”

VCU’s tournament hopes have never been seriously questioned, but there was a hint of doubt after Weber’s injury and the difficult stretch that followed. Smart watched his team treat every game as a sort of must-win. The Rams were pressing and spinning their wheels and playing not to lose, rather than to win.

Smart said Saturday was different.

“I thought today we just went after it,” he said. “We weren’t quite as worried about ‘What if it doesn’t work out?’ or ‘What if something happens?’ We just played and attacked and, lo and behold, it worked out.”

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