RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Troy Daniels is such a good shooter, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart has said he thinks every shot the junior takes is going in. Lucky for the Rams, they did when it counted Monday night.
Daniels made four free throws in the final 19 seconds Monday night, allowing the Rams to hold on after blowing a big lead and beat top-seeded Drexel 59-56 in the championship of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
A year after making a stunning run to the Final Four as an at-large selection — one of the last teams chosen for the field of 68 — VCU is heading back to the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid.
As his teammates struggled down the stretch, Daniels managed to step up and knocked down the pivotal free throws.
“It’s something that a shooter has in his mind,” Daniels said. “You learn to block stuff out when you miss shots and when other people miss shots. It’s not contagious to any shooter I know.”
For much of the night, the Rams looked like they wouldn’t need any heroics. They led by 16 at halftime thanks to their smothering, ball-hawking defense, but the Dragons slowly climbed back.
Daniels bailed them out, making a pair from the line with 18.9 seconds left to give them a 57-53 lead, and then following a 3-pointer by Drexel’s Chis Fouch with two more with 11.9 ticks left.
When Frantz Massenat’s 3-point try was off the mark at the either end, the Rams were one their way back to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s great,” Bradford Burgess, the Rams’ lone senior, said of the schools’ first automatic berth since 2009. “Last year those six days after the championship were pretty rough for us not knowing what we were going to do. Now we can sit back and chill and relax and watch some basketball.”
Darius Theus had a career-high 16 points, five rebounds and five steals, and said he was most grateful to Daniels. Theus’ turnover with 22 seconds left allowed the Dragons to get within 55-53.
“I just want to say thank you to Troy,” Theus said. “I threw that bad pass (that Massenat turned into two free throws) and if it wasn’t for Troy, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
VCU (28-6) led by 16 at halftime, just as they had against George Mason in the semifinals, but just as they did against the Patriots, allowed the Dragons to close to within six. This time, though, the Dragons kept coming in search of their school-record 20th consecutive victory and first NCAA bid since 1996.
“I thought we didn’t play with enough toughness in the first half,” Dragons coach Bruiser Flint said following his team’s first loss since Jan. 2. “They knocked us down.”
Playing more their style in the second half, the Dragons (27-6) got to within six with nine minutes to go, to within three with 1:14 to play and to within a point with 12.7 seconds remaining.
Flint said he hopes the people in charge of deciding at-large berths to the NCAAs were watching an impressed. Smart lobbied, too, for the Dragons to be invited into the field,
“There’s no doubt that they’re an NCAA tournament team,” he said, noting that the only other team in the country that could boast a winning streak of 19 games is top-ranked Kentucky.
Treveon Graham added 13 points and Daniel 11 for the Rams.
Freshman Damion Lee led Drexel with 20 points. Fouch had 15 points and Massenat 14.
The Dragons rallied gradually throughout the second half and pulled within 54-51 with 1:14 to play with the help of four missed free throws in a row by VCU.
After Graham finally made one for the Rams, making it 55-51, Lee missed twice from in close for Drexel and the Rams rebounded. But Theus turned it over while running into Massenat, and the All-CAA sophomore made two free throws, cutting the lead to 55-53 with 21.6 seconds to play.
Daniels then made two on both opportunities, sandwiched around Fouch’s 3-pointer.
Drexel got there on a 3-pointer and then two free throws by Lee, the latter with 9:06 to go capping a 14-5 run. But the Rams collected themselves.
Graham scored, was fouled and made the shot, and after a putback by Dartaye Ruffin for the Dragons, Graham took a pretty feed from Theus and made it 50-41. Theus’ fifth steal and putback of his own miss made it 52-41 with 5:06 to go.
But the Dragons came back again as Lee scored 16 of his points in the second half, including a 3-pointer to start a 10-2 burst, capped by Samme Given’s free throw with 1:14 to play.
The Dragons trailed just 10-9 with 15 minutes left in the half, but went more than six minutes without a point as the Rams started a 25-10 run to end the half. Theus scored the first three baskets, all on layups, and had eight points in the surge. Graham added seven.
The Dragons, who came in averaging just over 11 turnovers, had 12 by halftime, and VCU had turned them into 16 points. The Dragons finished with 18 giveaways that the Rams turned into 18 points.
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