March demons lifted: VCU advances in NCAA Tourney

OKLAHOMA CITY (WRIC/CNS) – The VCU men’s basketball team beat Oregon State University 75-67 on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City, denying the OSU Beavers a tournament win in their first appearance since 1990.

This is VCU’s sixth consecutive year playing in the tournament, but the first time the team has walked away victorious in the first round since 2013.

“Our guys played tough; our guys were pretty good from the jump,” said head coach Will Wade, who is making his NCAA tournament debut in his first year coaching the Rams. “They deserve the credit for the win.”

VCU got it going early offensively after poor shooting in the Atlantic 10 Championship loss to St. Joseph’s. Against OSU, the Rams shot 48.2 percent from the floor, including 46 points from scoring in the paint.

Junior point guard JeQuan Lewis was a magician on the court in his third-straight NCAA tournament. The Dickson, Tenn., native put on a show, leading all scorers with 21 points.

It wasn’t just scoring that highlighted Lewis’ performance, but his floor leadership that led VCU to victory. With his speed and agility, Lewis brought in eight rebounds and dished out seven assists, while turning over the ball only four times.

“He is a heck of a player – lightning quick,” said OSU guard Gary Payton II. “He pushes the ball in transition, finds open players and he just made big shots late in the game.”

Payton led his team with 19 points on 9-17 shooting. It wasn’t until the 10-minute mark in the second half that he made his presence known on the court.

The Beavers scored 10 straight points and gained the lead after Payton executed a thunderous alley-oop and brought the score to 51-49 with 9:48 remaining. It was the last lead OSU would have in the contest.

Payton’s father, Gary Payton Sr., was known for his scrappy defense and trash-talking during his 19-year career in the NBA. Nicknamed “The Glove,” the elder Payton also attended Oregon State. This season, Gary Peyton II was the only player in the country with at least 15.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game.

“He’s a great player, but we’re all players at the end of the day.” Lewis said. “We just stuck to what we do. We weren’t really thinking about anything else.”

Initiated by Lewis pushing the pace in transition, senior Melvin Johnson cashed in on his only 3-pointer of the afternoon – the biggest shot of the game.

Mo-Alie Cox (20pts, 8reb, 3blks) was a force down low for the Rams.
Mo-Alie Cox (20pts, 8reb, 3blks) was a force down low for the Rams.

That gave VCU a 52-51 advantage with 8:27 to play. The Rams, much due to junior Mo Alie-Cox’s play down low, catalyzed another late-game surge to take a commanding lead.

“It was huge. It was a confidence booster,” Johnson said. “When JeQuan pitched it, he yelled, ‘Shoot,’ so I had no choice but to.”

The Rams have yet to find their stroke from 3-point territory, shooting an abysmal 4-20. Wade said the team compensated with its inside play.

“We’re one of those teams that may shoot 4 of 20 today and shoot 14 of 20 on Sunday; that’s just the way we are out there,” Wade said. “So that’s a point of emphasis for us is being able to get that thing inside, whether it be off post feeds, the bounce, whatever.”

Wade said he trusted his guys not to call a timeout after the OSU run.

“We’ve got a good level of trust, good level of connectivity between our team and the coaching staff,” Wade said. “That helps you win in March.”

Alie-Cox feasted on a less-aggressive OSU frontcourt. His physical presence was the key for the Rams in out-rebounding the Beavers, 40-28.

It wasn’t the best of outings for senior Korey Billbury in his return home to Oklahoma. The Tulsa native finished the game with 6 points and 2 rebounds, but that didn’t stop his family from showing their excitement throughout the game.

“Hopefully now, he can settle in a little bit and be ready to go and put his best foot forward on Sunday,” Wade said.

On Sunday, VCU will play Oklahoma, which defeated CSU Bakersfield 82-68 late Friday afternoon. The Rams will be matched up with one of the most electric players in college basketball: Buddy Hield.

“That’s on the coaches,” Johnson joked in reference to stopping Hield. “You can’t necessarily worry about who you’re playing against – it’s basketball in March – so it’s more nameless, faceless.”

Stopping Hield will be a tall task for VCU, but a tough win against a tested OSU team is a start.

Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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