It certainly was not easy, but William and Mary capped an improbable 15-point comeback victory in the final seconds Saturday with a stoic performance against defending CAA champion VCU. The 75-74 win stretches the College’s (6-2, 1-0 CAA) winning streak to six games and halts the Ram’s (5-2, 0-1 CAA) four-game unbeaten mark.
After taking an early 5-2 edge, the College did not lead by more than one point until seizing a 71-69 advantage with 1:16 left in the game. Senior guard David Schneider broke a 74-74 tie with 3.1 seconds left after making one of two free throws and the Rams’ Ed Nixon missed an open look as time expired to seal the Tribe’s win.
“It is the most important [win so far this season] because it is our first conference game,” Head Coach Tony Shaver said. “People may laugh at that and think Wake is more important, but this is more important than that. I really don’t think without the Wake win, you maybe don’t get this win. All of those build confidence in our team.”
It was a game of two even, polished teams. The Tribe shot 46 percent while the Rams shot 45 percent. VCU held a 31-30 edge in rebounds while the College turned the ball over one fewer times, eight versus nine, than their opponent.
The game came down to adjustments — Shaver made them, VCU did not.
To combat a sluggish offense and VCU’s impenetrable first half pressure, Shaver pulled his three and four guards back and focused his team on quicker, crisper passes. As VCU pushed its defense out to the perimeter to combat the Tribe’s three-point shooters, Shaver had sophomore forward Quinn McDowell slice to the basket for easy backdoor cutters. And finally, as the Tribe’s big men got into foul trouble, junior center Marcus Kitts ended the game with four fouls and sophomore forward JohnMark Ludwick fouled out, Shaver was not afraid to stick McDowell down low to match-up with future NBA lottery pick Larry Sanders.
Not only did the Tribe break VCU’s pressure and secure easy inside lay-ins, McDowell played a man’s game down low. Outmatched by five inches and 25 pounds on Sanders, McDowell surprised Sanders with a physical presence of his own.
“It just goes back to really trying to play physical with him,” McDowell said. “It seemed like he really wanted to try to play a finesse kind of game. That’s why you work every day, to get strong so games like this you can do what you can to get him out of a rhythm and disrupt his timing.”
Shaver said McDowell told the team in a timeout that he wanted to guard Sanders and made the on-the-court adjustment. McDowell minimized Sanders’ presence and finished the game with 16 points on six of eight shooting.
The College struggled in the first half to generate any offense. The Rams shot 56 percent from the floor including eight of 15 from three to build a 40-27 halftime advantage.
But the second half was a different ball game.
“In the first half we didn’t execute, we did a lot of individual stuff,” Schneider said. “[In the second half] we settled down and handled their pressure and we knocked down some big shots and got some big stops on the other end.
“We are a very persistent group. I think when we cut it to about six or seven, once you get into a flow it is a lot easier to come back from, and then it came down to our execution.”
The Tribe committed only two second half turnovers to dwindle away at VCU’s once 15-point margin, connecting on 11 consecutive baskets. With 9:42 left in the game, senior guard Sean McCurdy leveled the score at 59-59 on a three-pointer. McCurdy recorded eight points in the final ten minutes to finish with 15 points for the game.
After the Tribe took a 74-71 advantage with 23 second remaining, Nixon drove the ball to the basket for VCU, converting a dunk while being fouled carelessly from behind by senior forward Danny Sumner.
“I was quite honestly very disappointed in that play,” Shaver said. “Just what we know we should not do in that play. But we survived it.”
Nixon drained the free throw to tie the game at 74-74 before Schneider won the game at the line with 3.1 seconds remaining.
The College is off until Dec. 19 when the team hosts Vassar College.
“We need to take it one game at a time and just focus on who we have to play next,” McCurdy said. “That is what we have been doing all year, and I think that is what we need to continue to do.”
Notes: The Tribe held Larry Sanders to 14 points and 10 rebounds … Ed Nixon went five for seven from the floor for 18 points to lead the Rams … the 6-2 mark is the best start for the College since 1992 … JohnMark Ludwick led the Tribe with five rebounds … VCU had won 14 of the previous 15 meetings with the Tribe … the lead changed 16 times.