Even if you have the perfect game plan against VCU, there is one thing you can't do against the Rams: commit turnovers.
Illinois State did almost everything right the entire way through Tuesday night's showdown against the A-10 favorites. The Redbirds shot the ball better, they stifled VCU in a half-court offense, and they broke the press again and again. But they committed the ultimate sin against the Rams in the second half.
The Redbirds finished with 24 turnovers, after amazingly withstanding the pressure of the Rams, and that ultimately gave VCU a 66-62 win. The upset that would have pegged Illinois State as yet another young team to keep an eye on slipped away.
It seemed that Illinois State had everything working in its favor. VCU inexplicably kept Briante Weber on the bench for the first 15 minutes of the game. They executed well on a 3-2 zone that kept VCU shooting deep 3-pointers, some of which did fall, but prevented them from getting inside.
This was the way to go. The Redbirds gave up the defensive glass but kept the guards at bay, knowing that if VCU couldn't shoot the ball, they would be beatable. As of yet this season, there was no inside threat to punish a team that focuses on the backcourt shooters.
But Illinois State had an issue in this formation. There was no way to close out the rebounding with only two men inside. The Rams grabbed 19 of 45 rebounds off their own backboard, an astounding 42 percent. That gave VCU 25 more shots for the game, and extended multiple possessions to almost a minute in length. It left the defense drained.
Which is why it was slightly baffling when in the final minute, with Illinois State still having a chance of closing out the upset, Dan Muller switched into a man-to-man set to try and stop the faster VCU team. While Illinois State might have been able to stop second chances in that formation, they were not going to prevent the drives that kept them so close the entire game.
That is not to take anything away from the defensive shift after halftime for the Rams. The pressure changed, as it does often under HAVOK, and the trap on the inbounds just did in the tired Redbirds.
It is unfortunate that Paris Lee was unable to finish with just eight seconds remaining in the game, even if the tie and overtime would have worked even more into VCU's favor. There is no telling how much the energy of the crowd would have pushed this team if the Redbirds could have just tied it.
But a nice play by Mo Alie-Cox forced him off target by centimeters while also not giving up a foul that could have sent Lee to the line to accomplish just what the lay up could have done.
The loss negated a nice offensive effort from DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (18 points, 3 assists) and a wonderful defensive effort from one of the best hairstyles in the business, Reggie Lynch (6 rebounds, 6 blocks).
Treveon Graham had 17 points and seven rebounds for VCU while Melvin Johnson led the scoring with 19 points and added three steals. Cox finished with four blocks, with his most important contribution maybe being that move on Lee.
Illinois State will travel to UAB for a showdown Sunday, while VCU comes home to see a highly ranked Virginia team Saturday.