Team Profile: 2008 BracketBuster Recap: VCU 57, Akron 52

by Chris Mackinder | February 24th, 2008

In a nationally televised BracketBuster game, one would have assumed Virginia Commonwealth’s Eric Maynor would have played a major factor – win or lose – in the Rams’ success.

Ironically, Maynor was a shell of himself Saturday morning in front of 4,098 screaming fans at Rhodes Arena. Still, that didn’t stop VCU from making a major statement to the Selection Committee.

With a suffocating half-court defense, unconscious shot-blocking skills from a freshman and timely shooting from its other star, VCU upset Akron, 57-52, in the first of 11 games Saturday in the O’Reilly Auto Parts ESPNU BracketBusters.

“Coach [Anthony] Grant said before the game even started, this game right here is getting us prepared for the postseason,” Maynor said after the game. “We’ve got another chance here to show everybody on national television what we’re all about. I think we did a good job of that today.”

In terms of the NCAA Tournament bubble, both teams likely have to win their respective conference tournaments for an NCAA bid. However, the tough road win for the Rams will, at the very least, make the Committee think a minute longer about VCU’s overall chances.

Heading into the game, the numbers were all in Akron’s favor.

  • The Zips had won 43 of the past 45 home games at Rhodes Arena.
  • In the past seven seasons, Akron was 30-4 at home in nonconference games.
  • ESPN2 had not been kind to VCU this season, as three of the Rams’ six losses came when playing on ESPN2.
  • In the three previous BracketBusters events, the Rams were 1-2, losing their only road game (at College of Charleston in 2005).
  • Vegas liked Akron enough in the game that the Zips were 3-point favorites.

As Chris Berman loves to say, “That’s why they play the game.”

Things started out great for the Rams (21-6, 13-3 CAA) as three Akron turnovers in four possessions gave VCU a quick 7-0 lead.

The Zips (19-8, 9-4 MAC) then went to the bench, bringing in Jeremiah Wood. Despite having surgery on his right knee just a few weeks ago – causing him to miss the past four games – Wood was determined to play a factor in this contest.

His first touch came in the post, seconds after he entered the game. He was fouled and connected on both free throws. Wood delivered a soft baby hook on the next possession and then, after a VCU turnover, Wood led a fastbreak and set up a teammate for an easy lay-up. The electrical charge Wood brought into the game seemingly lit up the entire arena and VCU (four turnovers in four possessions) needed a timeout.

”I was excited to play, Wood said. “I felt good on the floor. I felt good laterally. But I wasn’t explosive in my jumping. I felt I should have made more shots near the rim. Partly, it’s my fault for us losing. I have to make big buckets.”

Wood finished the game with 14 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals in just 23 minutes of action.

VCU’s strength – the full-court press – was unusable because, after starting hot from the field, the Rams struggled making shots from all over the court. That meant it was time to turn up the defense.

Enter Larry Sanders, a freshman with a 7-foot-7 wingspan. With Sanders clogging the post, neither Wood nor any other Zip could get an easy basket.

Sanders, who did his best to impersonate UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet, blocked nine shots in the game, including six in the first half, to go along with seven rebounds.

“I thought [Houston Rockets 7-foot-2 center Dikembe] Mutombo was out there for a minute,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said.

VCU’s Grant said getting Akron to drive the lane was part of the game plan.

“One of the keys for us was to push up and take away the 3-point line with the number of shooters they have,” Grant said. “When you do that, your defense will be spread out. Part of what we wanted to do was make them beat us with twos. When they did drive, Larry did a great job of altering or blocking shots.”

Akron held a slim 24-23 lead at the break, highlighted by supurb defense on Maynor (four points and four turnovers) and animalistic tendancies on the offensive glass (11 offensive rebounds).

The start of the second half proved to be the VCU backcourt show. Maynor opened the scoring with a floater in the lane and, on the next possession, Jamal Shuler followed suit. An Akron turnover led to Shuler hitting a fast-break pull-up jumper, forcing Akron to call time trailing 29-24.

Shuler led all scorers in the game with 19 points. Maynor finished with 14 points but also committed seven of his team’s 14 turnovers.

Dambrot needed a spark. Dambrot, who coached LeBron James in high school, would have loved to call James’ number but instead, he went to Akron’s next-best option – Wood.

As if it were his rite of passage, Wood called for the ball in the post, took a few dribbles and sunk a baby hook. Wood & Co. turned up the defense as well, forcing VCU into horrific field goal shooting which kept Akron in the game despite putrid field goal shooting of its own.

When Wood, who couldn’t play a large number of minutes because of the injury, sat down, Cedrick Middleton became the show for the Zips. Middleton, who led all Zips with 17 points, hit a few big 3-pointers, the last giving Akron its final lead at 39-38 with 6:30 to play. That, however, was Akron’s last lead.

Down 52-49 with 17 seconds to play, Akron’s Nick Dials missed a good look from beyond the arc that would have tied the game. VCU, which entered the game with the nation’s best 3-point field goal defense at 27.5 percent, held Akron to 6-for-25 (24 percent)for the game.

VCU finished the game 21-for-51 from the field (41.2 percent) while Akron finished 17-for-60 (28.3 percent). The shooting woes obviously proved to be the main culprit in the Zips’ loss as Akron shot better from the free throw line (70.6 to 64.7 percent), had more rebounds (37 to 35), fewer turnovers (10 to 14) and more steals (9 to 7).

“I felt we got good shots on almost every possession,” Dambrot said. “We definitely got open looks – we just didn’t make them. To beat a good team like that, you have to make open shots.”

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