Elite 8 Recap Southwest Regional - (11) Virginia Commonwealth 71, (1) Kansas 61
Just before tip-off in the Southwest Regional final of a wild NCAA Tournament, one of the Kansas Jayhawks told the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, “The run ends here.”
That Kansas player – suspected to be one of the Morris twins – was absolutely right. Kansas’s March Madness journey met another crushing and abrupt conclusion at the hands of a significantly lower seed. Meanwhile, a mid-major team was assured of an appearance in college basketball’s championship game for the second consecutive season, a reality that’s impossible to truly comprehend in all its totality.
Jamie Skeen and Brett Rozell each made four three-pointers, as the eleventh-seeded Virginia Commonwealth University Rams used the long ball to upset top-seeded Kansas in the Southwest Regional Final in San Antonio on Sunday. The Rams made 12-of-25 shots from three-point range, outscoring the Jayhawks 36-6 behind the arc. Skeen led VCU with 26 points and 10 rebounds while Rozell chipped in 12 points, all of which came on ballsy and cold-blooded three-pointers.
The Rams became just the third eleventh seed in NCAA Tournament history to advance to the Final Four. However, neither Louisiana State (1986) or George Mason (2006), the other eleven seeds to make it to the Final Four, had to win five games to get there like VCU has done. It is a singularly impressive performance that has resulted in a slew of busted brackets and the incontrovertible fact that some renowned college basketball talking heads are being forced to eat a huge helping of humble pie.
Speaking of humble pie, that was likely on the postgame menu for the Jayhawks, as well. Throughout their improbable Tournament run, the Rams have been fueled by the doubts of pundits, and a general lack of respect for their abilities. According to several VCU players, Kansas added fuel to the fire yesterday during the pregame captain’s meeting, as one of the Morris brothers told the Rams’ senior captain, point guard Joey Rodriguez, that “the run ends here.” It became clear minutes into the first half that the Rams’ run was the run that was not about to end.
Kansas was leading 10-9 at the 14:01 mark of the first half when Skeen drilled a three-pointer to stake VCU to a 12-10 lead and spark an 11-0 run that extended the lead to 20-10. The Rams didn’t relent for the remainder of the first half, taking a 41-25 lead when Skeen hit two free throws with 32 seconds remaining. Tyrel Reed hit two free throws on the Jayhawks’ final possession of the first half to make the first time deficit 41-27, but it was clear that the top seed was rattled.
The halftime break seemed to help the Jayhawks settle down, however. They opened the second half with a 9-2 spurt – as just about everyone (even VCU) thought they would – to cut the Rams’ lead to seven points, 43-36. Kansas continued its strong play and, in the process, revving up VCU coach Shaka Smart, who was whistled for a technical foul at the 15:43 mark of the second half. Smart apologized to his team at that point and gave an impassioned pep talk, which several players credited with helping them get refocused and re-energized to fend off the Jayhawks’ final surge.
The Jayhawks cut the deficit all the way to 46-44 when KU guard Tyshawn Taylor made a layup with 13:13 remaining in the game. That’s when VCU’s steel was tested, and it turned out that the Rams would not melt under the extraordinary heat of a regional final.
Skeen responded for the Rams, making two of three free throws to build the lead to 48-44, and igniting a 11-3 run that increased the lead to 57-47 with 8:52 left to play. Kansas got within five and six points of VCU in the final eight-plus minutes of regulation, but the upstart Rams responded each time to keep the Jayhawks at arms’ length. The outcome was never in doubt during the game’s final moments, as VCU took a 65-57 lead at the 1:53 mark and coasted to the finish line as the Jayhawks continued to brick threes and foul shots. KU hit just 2 of 21 long balls and 15 of 28 foul shots, two horrible numbers for junior varsity high school clubs. The celebration was on for the Rams and their faithful at that point.
There is a little doubt that the premature ending to the season was a tremendous disappointment to coach Bill Self, his team, and the multitudes of Kansas fans who dominated the Alamodome in a manner their team failed to do. The Jayhawks finished the season 35-3. Marcus Morris scored 20 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to lead Kansas. His twin brother Markieff had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Their run ended, though, in contrast to their pre-game trash-talking prophecies.
It’s a moment that will ripple across the college basketball landscape for a very long time to come. Another mid-major will be playing on the final Monday night of the college basketball season.
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