VCU Rebounds to Beat St. Louis 79-67, Clinches Atlantic 10 Regular Season Title

The VCU men's basketball team celebrates after clinching the A-10 regular season title with a win over St. Louis on Tuesday at the Siegel Center.
The VCU men's basketball team celebrates after clinching the A-10 regular season title with a win over St. Louis on Tuesday at the Siegel Center. Photo credit Adam Cheek

At halftime, things weren't quite as loud in the Siegel Center as they usually were.

The VCU Rams, 22-7 overall and 13-3 in the conference heading into Tuesday (Feb. 28) night's matchup with the St. Louis Billikens, were favored going into the 7 p.m. tip-off, but were down 35-31 at the buzzer.

Roughly one hour later, after 20 more minutes of basketball, deafening music from the Peppas (plus the Purge broadcast/siren and a tuba-playing T-Rex), two performances from the Gold Rush Dancers and a comeback from VCU amid one of the most raucous crowds all season long, the Rams hoisted the regular-season champions' trophy near midcourt after beating the Billikens 79-67.

VCU (23-7 overall, 14-3 in conference play after Tuesday night) ended up with six players in double-digit points, led by sophomore forward Jalen DeLoach's 14 and three other roster members with 12 apiece, and the 12-point win was a further improvement over an eight-point victory at the Billikens 25 days prior.

"I want to say, our ball-screen defense adjustment -- second half, it showed up," VCU head coach Mike Rhoades said with a laugh in his postgame press conference. "I just thought, offensively, we had different guys make plays through the game where Ace [Baldwin] put us on his back and went to work.

"I thought we had better ball movement and better pacing this game than the game in St. Louis," he added. "Our defense was pretty good up there late in the game when we needed to get stops, but I thought most of the second half -- we had couple plays I wish we had back -- but I thought, overall [...] our defensive presence was better."

There was no better exclamation point for the win that was itself an exclamation point on the season than forward Jamir Watkins' dunk just before the under-16 media timeout, as the 6-foot-7 New Jersey native elevated over St. Louis' Jake Forrester in the paint for two of his 10 points on the night.

The sold-out, "sixth man" crowd, which somehow seemed even rowdier than the packed house for the Capital City Classic against Richmond last Friday (Feb. 24), made an immediate impact with forcing a shot clock violation on St. Louis' very first possession of the game. Sophomore guard Nick Kern put the Rams up 4-0 early, continuing his recent hot streak of double-digit points in three of his past four games, his best run of the season.

"He's versatile, he can really move, he's athletic," Rhoades said of Kern's evolution in the 2022-23 campaign. "He's got some different types of finishes, and he can really jump and he's long. So even if you think 'I'll meet him at the rim,' he can get by you or he can get up on you, and he's done a good job of that.

"He's really learned to become a really good cutter," Rhoades added. "I think he learned that a lot last year with KeShawn [Curry], but JD [Jalen DeLoach] has really worked with him on that and finding different angles to cut, and guys are finding him. But now he's starting to put the ball on the floor, creating plays for him and his teammates, so [he's] a huge threat."

VCU went on a couple of runs just before and just after the halfway point of the first frame, going up by as many as eight two times before the under-8 media timeout. No one on either team made a bucket for 3:44 of play as the first half waned, and then a layup and three free throws gave St. Louis the halftime advantage after the Rams appeared to be running away with the game.

And then Ace Baldwin, the team's biggest headliner all season long, went to work as soon as the break ended.

Two consecutive Ace jumpers later, things were tied, and so began the trading of buckets. VCU and St. Louis ended up dead even five different times in the first 10 minutes of the second half, and only after that were the Rams able to pull away.

A David Shriver three led the charge and VCU never relinquished the lead the rest of the way, the final 12-point margin the Rams' largest of the night. VCU recorded 18 fast breaks in the second half, their defense stifling the Billikens' attempts to mount a comeback.

Despite suboptimal shooting from beyond the arc (2-for-13) as compared to St. Louis (7-for-17, but four threes within the first 10 minutes of play), VCU's physical play allowed them to take advantage in the paint and more so as the game went on. Just 27 of the 146 total points came from threes, but one of VCU's long-range buckets came on that David Shriver launch, which was practically from the logo.

That gave the Rams the lead for good and they ran away with it, St. Louis only getting as close as two the rest of the way. Once the final buzzer sounded, personnel stormed the court and fans stayed at their seats long afterward while echoing a variety of chants.

The 2022-23 regular season title marks Rhoades' second at the helm of the Rams, after doing so in the 2018-19 season, and VCU's third overall thanks to the Will Wade-led crown in 2015-16.

VCU now heads to George Washington for the Rams' final game of the regular season on Saturday, March 4 at 4:30 p.m., and will then turn their attention to the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which begins March 7 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Rams, however, won't have to worry about playing until March 9, thanks to a double bye for the tournament. All games can be heard on 910 the Fan on the 910AM and 105.1FM frequencies, as well as on the Audacy app.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Adam Cheek