VCU coach Will Wade walked briskly into the media room after the Rams’ 91-81 victory over Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday night and didn’t waste time expressing his displeasure.
“There’s a certain way we win, and this was fool’s gold,” he said. “This will not work the rest of the year. Maybe it’ll work one time. Maybe.”
Against an undermanned team mired near the bottom of the Atlantic 10, operating without its top two scorers because of injuries and basically playing with a seven-man rotation, the Rams were flat and didn’t play a lot of defense.
Saint Joe’s (10-15, 3-10) gave the Rams a game-long fight. The Hawks shot 49.1 percent and consistently beat VCU defenders on drives to the basket, made open jumpers and got run-outs after turnovers. They piled up 44 points in the first half, the highest total against the Rams this season.
A career-high 34-point effort from senior guard JeQuan Lewis helped the Rams improve to 21-5, 11-2, and stay atop the A-10 while winning their seventh consecutive game.
“(Phil Martelli is) a good coach,” said Wade. “We knew what they were going to do: They were going to zone us, pack it in the paint, and we fell for it. We talked to our guys all week, ‘Don’t take the bait. Don’t take the bait. Don’t take the bait.’ We took the bait.”
VCU’s strength is inside. The Rams instead launched a lot of 3-pointers against the zone (13 of 27). They were outscored 34-18 in the paint.
Lewis said he noticed the Rams were flat during warm-ups.
“I told the team, including myself, we weren’t really energetic,” he said. “We were out there going through the motions. … I was a little worried at the beginning of the game. It shouldn’t have been that close, but give them credit. They played super hard. They’re short a few players, and a lot of their players stepped up and played tremendous.”
Lewis, who scored 27 points against Davidson on Saturday, made a career-high nine 3-pointers. Troy Daniels holds the VCU record for most 3-pointers made in a game with 11 against East Tennessee State on Jan. 2, 2013.
“We listed him in our scouting report as a big-play player,” said Martelli. “He just seeks it. … You could feel it in the first half. We played three (zones) in the first half, and they were trying to feel what it was. I think we were up maybe 4, and he hit a couple of bombs. Look, I’d rather walk out losing to a jumper than a layup.
“He’s a senior. He was an all-league player in a game that they needed. That wasn’t a walk in the park, and there were a lot of people who assumed, well, how could this team hang around? They needed 91 to beat us, and he was a big reason why they got it.”
VCU led by 5 with 2:51 remaining before getting three free throws from Samir Doughty and Lewis. The Rams had some poor late-game management on defense but made 11 free throws in the final 1:07.
Martelli was happy with his team’s effort, but lamented free throws (21 of 30) and execution down the stretch.
“We had plays to the basket that were not manly enough,” he said. “You’re going into (Mo) Alie-Cox’s and (Justin) Tillman’s world, you’d better bring it. There were a couple of like throws at the basket.”
Saint Joe’s got 21 points from Chris Clover, 19 from Charlie Brown and 17 from James Demery.
Tillman had 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Doug Brooks added 12 points for VCU. Doughty almost had a triple-double: 10 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.