The VCU Rams entered Wednesday night against the Richmond Spiders without their starting point guard, Jonathan Williams. The senior was ruled out before the game with a sprained ankle that was suffered in a loss to Rhode Island last week.
VCU managed well without Williams for the majority of the contest, though, as Malik Crowfield replaced him in the starting lineup and did a solid job holding down the fort. But Williams’ veteran leadership was greatly missed in the closing moments, as the Spiders erased a 12-point deficit in less than eight minutes to storm back and defeat VCU, 77-76.
Richmond (9-14, 7-4 A-10) has now swept the season series with VCU (14-10, 6-5 A-10) and would own the tiebreaker if the two teams were to finish with identical conference records.
“We’re fortunate to win this one,” said Spiders coach Chris Mooney. “Really just proud to be part of it, and thrilled that we won. I thought our team showed a great deal of heart and toughness and energy.”
Trailing by seven points with five minutes to go, Mooney decided to insert a smaller lineup, as the Spiders were entering desperation mode and wanted to turn up the defensive intensity. So he sat freshman big man Grant Golden, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds on the night.
The change led to Richmond forcing three turnovers in the final 1:33, one of which was a steal by Jacob Gilyard to set up his game-tying layup with 31 seconds to play.
Gilyard finished with five steals, to go along with 18 points and six assists.
“The only guy I can think that was anything like that was Briante Weber at VCU,” Mooney said of Gilyard’s ability to force turnovers. “His knack to steal the ball is incredible.”
The freshman point guard provides energy for the Spiders with his penetration, feistiness on defense and his total command of the offense. And he has continued to develop as the season progresses.
“My teammates and my coaches, they have faith in me,” said Gilyard. “They try to tell me every game and every practice; I just try not to prove them wrong.”
VCU guard De’Riante Jenkins, who was the one to turn the ball over late in the game, had a chance to score the winning bucket, but missed the shot at the rim and gave the Spiders a fast break opportunity with time ticking away.
Gilyard got out in transition and found Khwan Fore on the wing, who was fouled with 4 seconds remaining. The senior knocked down 1 of 2 free throws, which eventually captured the victory for Richmond. He hit 3-of-4 in the final 1:13 and five of his six attempts on the night.
“I get in the gym and shoot free throws as much as I can,” Fore said. “It’s really just confidence.”
The game was tied at intermission, and then the Rams went on a 15-2 run midway through the second half and appeared to be seizing control. They held the Spiders without a field goal for a stretch of 6:36.
The VCU fans that made the commute to the game were pumped up, chanting “V-C-U” in the stands. All the momentum was on the Rams’ side.
Then out of nowhere, with one of its most talented players, De’Monte Buckingham, in the locker room nursing an injury, Richmond displayed some grit and outscored VCU 24-11 down the stretch.
The come-from-behind victory gave the Spiders their sixth win in the past seven games and placed them squarely in the top four in the Atlantic 10. It has been a huge turnaround for Mooney’s group after getting off to a disappointing 3-13 start to the season.
“When you see the losses become wins, it seems like there was something that sparked a turnaround,” Mooney said. “Confidence has a lot to do with it, but it’s been [more of] a steady improvement for our team.”
Richmond got 18 points and two steals from Nick Sherod, as well as 15 points, five rebounds and four steals from Fore. VCU was led by Justin Tillman’s 21 points and seven rebounds, while Issac Vann and Jenkins scored 14 apiece, respectively.
The Spiders won’t have long to celebrate as they’ll meet St. Bonaventure on Saturday, in what will be another important game in the A-10. VCU will get a shot at redemption against the Dayton Flyers, who gave the Rams an old-fashioned beatdown in their first meeting this season.