Houston gets a March miracle
Cinderella chokes Kansas: VCU pulls off the greatest, most improbable Final Fourrun ever
SAN ANTONIO — When one of the greatest upsets in NCAA history was over, when the most unlikely Final Four run ever was complete, the Virginia Commonwealth University players sprinted around the Alamodome court, flashing four fingers at the packed crowd of disbelieving Kansas fans.
And why not. VCU 71, Kansas 61.
Do you believe in March miracles?
From First Four to Final Four. March has never been quite this mad. There will not be a single No. 1 seed in Houston when the Final Four rolls into town. But college basketball's biggest underdog story ever will be on center stage.
VCU becomes the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. The No. 11 seed Rams tie the record for the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four (joining George Mason in 2006 and LSU in 1986). But no one's ever had to take a road like VCU has.
The Rams knock out the last No. 1 seed in this NCAA Tournament, the biggest bully in basketball — Kansas, a 35-2 monster coming into Sunday afternoon.
VCU did it by never backing down, with senior center Jamie Skeen (26 points, 10 rebounds) playing the game of his life, with point guard Joey Rodriguez hitting an all-guts three, moments after chucking up an air ball in the final five minutes, with a 33-year-old no-name coach who kept getting his band of ultimate underdogs to somehow believe.
And in many ways, VCU (28-11) did it in dominate fashion.
Kansas went into halftime reeling, trailing by 14 points, having shot 31.8 percent from the field against a smaller, overmatched team. VCU had dropped nine 3-pointers on the Jayhawks' heads and Rock Chalk Nation's collective head was spinning. But Bill Self's team found something in the locker room.
Its lockdown defense.
VCU fired up two straight air balls, neither of which came close to hitting the rim. The Rams turned the ball over. Kansas roared within four points little more than four minutes into the second half.
Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor (14 points) was changing the game with his speed.
But VCU never lost belief. Never stopped fighting. Not even when Kansas pulled within 46-44 and everything seemed to be falling apart. The Rams pushed the lead to 10 again with 8:49 remaining. Marcus Morris screamed at his own team heading into a timeout.
Kansas was missing free throws (13 in all), throwing up off-balance looks, self destructing before everyone's disbelieving eyes. Besides Marcus Morris (20 points, 16 rebounds), no Jayhawk seemed ready for the moment.
After having rolled over a 16th seed, a ninth seed and a 12th seed in the easiest NCAA Tournament road ever, Kansas found a 11th seed that pushed back.
The tone was set early.
Kansas scored the first six points of the game and seemed ready to run away with the game early — including when Marcus Morris deflected a VCU pass in the open court and turned it into a rim-rattling breakaway dunk. The Jayhawks power was on full display, but the Rams simply wouldn't go away.
Skeen — college basketball's version of a journeyman — scored 10 points in the first 10 minutes, getting off to the start of his life. The big man hit two 3-pointers. Rams coach Shaka Smart discarded his suit jacket about a minute into the game.
Cinderella was feeling it.
"There's no difference between ACC, the Big 12 and (VCU's small conference) the CAA," Skeen, who started his career in the ACC at Wake Forest, said before the game. "None is tougher than the other."
Certainly few teams anywhere — on any level — are as tough as these Rams, who've gone from playing in the First Four (the contrived new name for what are essentially still NCAA Tournament play-in games) to pushing around the biggest, baddest bully left in the tournament.
When VCU guard Brandon Rozzell hit a two-steps-behind-the-line triple to push the underdog's advantage to 36-19, he stopped and posed. With the Rams hitting nine of their first 15 3-point shots, they weren't just shocking. They were threatening to run Kansas right out of the Alamodome.
Rozzell hit four 3-pointers in the first half. And he doesn't even start for VCU.
It wasn't that long ago that VCU was strictly a commuter school, and even many people in Richmond still look at the university that way.
And Smart's team was such an uncertainty to even make the expanded 68-team field that the coach refused to hold a Selection Sunday watch party. Bradford Burgess — the team's star — was at Five Guys when VCU's name popped up on TV in the bracket, completely unaware. In fact, point guard Joey Rodriguez was the only Ram watching.
"I was doing homework," said Rozzell, who is Rodriguez's roommate. "And I just heard Joey let out this crazy scream. He was doing cartwheels down the hall ... really. Knocking on people's doors to let them know."
The turnaround was so quick to VCU's First Four game that the Rams didn't have a chance to even get haircuts for their One Shining Moment. So VCU turned that into a team bonding experience too. No one would shave or cut their hair until the tournament run was over.
"I don't know of a lot of guys expected it to last this long though," Rozell laughed, stroking his full beard.
No one in America expected VCU to last this long. From First Four to Final Four.
Forget about One Shining Moment. VCU has taken over an entire month.
Do you believe in March miracles? You'd better now.