There were plenty of story-lines coming into Thursday's night match up between VCU and Eastern Kentucky. For one, both teams reside in a city named Richmond, but on the court the biggest comparison was that the Rams and the Colonels were ranked number one and number two in the country in steals per game coming into the evening. Oh yea, did I mention EKU head coach Jeff Neubauer is a former University of Richmond assistant?
The fury of Broad Street did not phase Eastern Kentucky early on, as the Colonels shot out to a 14 point lead in the first ten minutes of the game. Corey Walden was the first Colonel to double-figures on the night with 12 points in the first half and would help dictate the pace early on for EKU.
Shaka Smart's squad would not go away in the first half though, and to combat EKU's shifting defensive sets the Rams went beyond the arc to find their points. A Treveon Graham put-back as time expired would cap a 16-2 run, behind nine three pointers in the first half, and give the Rams a 36-34 lead. Shaka Smart's squad simply exerted more energy in the last ten minutes of the half and slowed down the Colonels offense using patented VCU pressure defense.
Many Rams' fan likely thought VCU would blow the doors off of EKU after the tremendous run to end the first half. That notion was quickly squashed as Jeff Neubauer's squad simply wouldn't go away.
With 24 seconds left in the game we found both teams tied at 66 a piece and VCU with the ball. After a Shaka Smart timeout, Tre Graham took the ball for the Rams, drove to the basket and turned the ball over. Corey Walden would then rim out a halfcourt heave as time expired and nearly missed being a hero and the number one play on SportsCenter. Instead, we headed to the only thing appropriate for this game...overtime.
Rob Brandenburg hit a big three and got his twelfth point of evening to give the Rams a 69-66 lead to start off overtime. A defensive clinic would then ensue after that and neither team would score for nearly four and half minutes.
EKU had a huge opportunity with 25 seconds left when Corey Walden missed a wide open three. To Neubauer's dismay and frustration, the Colonels would not foul VCU until 14 seconds left when they caught Melvin Johnson at the timeline. Johnson would make just one of his free throws to stretch the Rams lead to four points.
Who else but Corey Walden to continue to make this game interesting? Walden would respond with a quick layup to pull the Colonels back within two points with 7 seconds left. The Colonels would then get a quick hand on Briante Weber and send him to the line with just five seconds remaining.
Ghosts from the game at Virginia would haunt Briante Weber at the free throw line; as he missed his first free throw and keep the game as a one shot affair. Glenn Cosey would race up the court and after a tipped ball, EKU would have a set play with one second left to send the game to overtime. It would be Cosey who would get a good look at the basket but would air-ball a three pointer from the corner as time expired.
The preseason Atlantic 10 favorite would down the preseason Ohio Valley favorite 71-68. It was truly a team effort for both teams tonight as Graham (15 pts), Brandenburg (12), Melvin Johnson (12), and freshman JeQuan Lewis (13) would all finish in double-figures. Lewis continues to get a "baptism by fire" from Shaka Smart and the freshman point guard seems to be a perfect remedy for the Rams early on.
For the Colonels, a trio of scorers had a particular impressive night. Cosey would finish with 17, Walden added 19, and Marcus Lewis finished the game with 15 points.
VCU advances to 7-2 on the year and will host a bitter rival in the Old Dominion Monarchs on Sunday in Richmond. Eastern Kentucky drops to 6-3 and will make the 90 minute drive to Farmville, Virginia to take on the Longwood Lancers on Saturday afternoon.
Both of these teams tonight showed why they are preseason favorites in their respective conferences and why they'll be a force the rest of the way.