VCU's Matt Coward holds the team's symbol of unity -- a gold chain -- after its upset of Duke.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was a small gesture, easy to miss in the last-minute melee of an NCAA tournament thriller, but if you saw the wave, you knew how the ending would unfold. The ball had barely emerged from the net after Duke's DeMarcus Nelson laid it in to tie the game at 77-77 with 10.3 seconds left, when VCU guard Eric Maynor turned toward his coach, Anthony Grant, and with two motions of his hand, conveyed a message:
No need for a timeout. I'm taking over.
Few seniors would have the cojones -- or the confidence -- to make such a move, with their 11th-seeded team's Cinderella life on the line against one of college basketball's most venerable programs. Maynor happens to be a 6-foot-2, 165-pound wisp of a sophomore, but no ordinary underclassman. In the Colonial Athletic Association finals, he scored nine straight points in the final two minutes to knock off 2006 Final Four darling George Mason, and on Thursday, hit two consecutive Rams field goals leading up to the last sequence. So when Grant spied Maynor motioning from the other end of the court, he was not worried, but rather, "excited -- because I wasn't calling a timeout."
"There were 10 seconds to go in the game, and I was going to put the ball in his hands, and let him give us an opportunity to win in regulation."
Maynor raced upcourt, a cold-blooded ballhandler surveying the chaotic scene in front of him. "I felt like they were going to be in a scramble situation," he said of Duke's defenders, "and they weren't going to be able to match up." While the Blue Devils -- freshman Jon Scheyer in particular -- seemed unable to anticipate Maynor's final move, some of his VCU teammates were well aware of what was about to occur. They affectionately call Maynor "Bobblehead," because his head appears disproportionately large, and as senior guard Jesse Pellot-Rosa said, "When he crosses over, his head bobbles -- all 'wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-like,' -- but if he doesn't bobble, we know he's pulling up."
Bobblehead didn't wobble, and Maynor drained a free-throw-lane length jumper with 1.8 seconds left, putting the Rams up 79-77 and sending the crowd at HSBC Arena into a state of frenzy. Maynor -- who would finish with 22 points, eight assists and three steals -- jumped into the arms of teammate Jamal Shuler as Duke called a timeout, and reserve Matt Coward sprinted off the bench holding up the gold chain that has served as the symbol of VCU's unity since late February. Blue Devils point guard Greg Paulus, whose pas de deux with Maynor had been the game's biggest storyline, missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. The big dance had its first and only big upset of opening day, and Duke's run of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances was halted.
Maynor's mom, Barbara Johnson, ran down to the front row of the VCU section in the aftermath, in hopes of getting a word in with her son, a Fayetteville, N.C., product who had grown up as a Tar Heels fan and thus had an extensive history of despising Duke. Thursday, he got to take matters into his own hands. "That was the best shot in the world!" Henderson screamed as Maynor was being interviewed live on CBS. "Look at him down there! He's still got energy!"
Indeed, looking at interviewees Maynor and Grant, the two men of the hour, one got the feeling that VCU's run in this tournament is far from finished. There are NCAA tournament upsets that come off as flukes, but this was not one of them; the Rams clawed back from a 13-point deficit early in the first half to trail by only two at halftime, and never lost their composure in a tense last 20 minutes. In Maynor, who plays like a senior, and fellow guards Pellot-Rosa and B.A. Walker, who actually are seniors, VCU has a battle-tested, hot-shooting backcourt that stacks up against any team -- mid-major or major -- in the country. And in Grant, the first-year head coach who was an assistant on Florida's national championship team last season, they have a motivator who is one of the rising stars of the profession.
In the last week of the Rams' regular season, coming off a BracketBusters loss to Bradley, Grant received an idea from mentor Billy Donovan -- to come up with a symbol that represented the team's desire for greatness. VCU was on its way to a stellar regular-season finish at 24-6 and 16-2 in the CAA, but Grant needed a way to make sure his players didn't get complacent. Out of his chat with Donovan, the chain -- a simple string of gold-painted carabiner clips, one for each player, with his initials written on athletic tape -- was born.
"We had a lot more that we wanted to accomplish, and what it was going to take was a tremendous commitment on their part," Grant said. "It was as simple as a decision. If they decided they would stay together ... we could accomplish these special things. They made that decision, and the chain is just a symbol of that commitment."
The Rams linked up for the CAA tournament, pulling off a stunning comeback over last year's historic NCAA giant-killers, the Patriots, in the title game. Afterwards, Maynor said George Mason guard Gabe Norwood wished him good luck -- and told him to go and win some games in the NCAAs. In the locker room on Thursday, VCU's players ceremoniously reconstructed the chain, one player at a time, before taking the floor against Duke.
The CAA's latest David has traded in its stones for golden carabiners. Every player has a link, and every link represents a different role. Grant, laughing, said that Maynor's responsibilities are simple: "To make shots at the end of the game."
Grant was then asked what he considered was his link's assignment. "I don't know," he said. "I guess, to tell [the players] what theirs are."
One he is adamant about not telling his Rams -- despite what so many pundits are saying -- is that they are this year's George Mason, even if their route to NCAA tournament glory went through the Patriots. "I don’t see it that way," he said. "We're just trying to be VCU."
The thing is, coach, that in the course of being VCU, you're starting evoke memories of George Mason. And that, in Cinderella parlance, is hardly a negative development.
I am not much of a basketball fan, but I just happened to watch the Duke/VCU game last evening. Still looking for appropriate adjectives for VCU's performance...scrappy, determined, hustling, attacking.....just don't seem strong enough. Certainly a a very talented team in great physical condition and ready to give anybody a difficult time. Not sure I even heard of VCU before last nite but they won me over. GO VCU, you have a new fan in New Hampshire.
I just want to say to all the guys that are fans of the BIG EAST, ACC, BIG TEN. These teams are so overrated and thes same people was saying why was Syracuse left off and the put Arkansas in the tourney...DUKE was the team everybody should have been complaining about. For the life of me how can you put a team in the Dance who has lost 7 of the last 11. Jesus, if anyone should be mad it's all these people including pollsters who said that this team was worth a berth in the touney. It's ridiculas to seethat a team rep can give them a trip to the dance and everybody in the south can see that they don't deserve it. NIT and then maybe. You guys in the media should come out and just state that the committee was wrong to include these guys. And I hope that they are not ranked in the final poll because you guys are just wrong here. Give the teams that are worthy of consideration a trip next time. Idiots!
This was NOT and UPSET!!! VCU is the better team. The seedings would have been more accurate if they were the other way around. The only "upset" is that VCU only won by two points against this slumping, vastly-overrated Duke team.
After Duke and now Georgia Tech, I think the ACC has been hyped up way too much all year long. I think it shows that even the "strongest conference" that has under achieved all year was prone to fall sooner or later.
What a great game to watch last night, so glad that VCU beat Duke. Like another anonymous person said they were scrappy, determined, hustling and attacking, but best of all they played like another great team I know that cares about each other first and what is good for the team. Congratulations to Coach Grant and a great group of young men.
I agree with ACC and I work at VCU. Don't trash Duke. We see higher ranked teams lose all the time in the tournament. If we didn't large parts of the population would not watch. Duke has some impressive wins this season, including a double digit win over the Big East Champion and several tournament teams. Appreciate instead a VCU team that hustles and takes advantages of opportunities given to them. If Pitt's big man is not hitting they could take them out as well.
It would be interesting to know the CAA's record in 1st round games going back to when Richmond beat Indiana ... think people would be surprised at the number of 1st round wins (despite unfavorable seedings in most cases). The wins the past two years can somewhat be attributed to better draws as the 11 seeds (GMU/VCU) in leiu of a 12 seeds (i.e. ODU this year).
GO VCU!! I am a student at VCU and have thoroughly enjoyed watching our amazing team this year. Our guys have made a name for themselves and have shown their true character. It’s been awesome to see a group of guys that truly play as a team. I don’t even know what else to say besides... you all made VCU proud!!
To everyone who thought VCU was no good...you are all wrong. To everyone on the basketball team...well done. Just remember that now it's time to get back to what is really important and makes you just like the rest of us VCU students...the books. Also remember to use profalactics because you guys are probably going to get some serious booty now...if you were true players. P.Diddly
What an amazing season VCU!! Thanks to all of you for the fun!! It was a great ride all the way to Buffalo!! Seniors, you will be missed. Looking forward to next season when it all starts again!! With the underclassmen that are returning and the new recruits it promises to be anothere great season. Also, THANKS TO COACH GRANT...without him this all wouldndt be possible. Remember, LINK IT UP!!!!