Similar to Wednesday night against the Richmond Spiders, the VCU Rams held a double-digit lead late in the second half and appeared to be cruising towards victory Saturday against the Dayton Flyers.
But facing a 17-point deficit, the Flyers came roaring back and went on a 22-5 run to close out regulation, forcing overtime and leaving the Siegel Center in total shock.
It was starting to feel like deja vu.
However, thanks to a career night from Justin Tillman, the Rams were able to hang on in the extra period and put the Flyers away, 88-84.
The senior forward went into superhero mode, shooting 17-of-25 from the field and completely dominating inside the paint. His 37 points, which is a career high, was the most scored by a VCU player since Willie Taylor dropped 38 against Hampton in 2002.
“Justin Tillman played like a senior today and gave an unbelievable effort,” said VCU coach Mike Rhoades. “He’s so darn competitive, so you’re glad you have him on your team.”
There was one stretch in the second half where he scored 14 consecutive points for the Rams, igniting the crowd and swinging the momentum in his team’s favor. Dayton coach Anthony Grant could do nothing but give Tillman props following the game.
“He was a load obviously,” the former VCU coach said. “He’s a really good player, he had a really good night tonight. Give him credit.”
He had it going, and that’s an understatement. Tillman scored seven of VCU’s nine points in overtime and willed his team to victory. He put his seniority on full display, leading by example and carrying the load in what was an important win for the Rams.
But in his eyes, it was just another day on the job.
“I feel like I have that mentality every game,” Tillman said. “But they weren’t really double-teaming, and my team was giving me the ball inside. We all worked together.”
The two teams were evenly matched at intermission, but the Rams outscored the Flyers 30-8 over a nine-minute stretch midway through the second half to move into the driver’s seat. Dayton showed its mental toughness by storming back late, but VCU was able to prevail.
Johnny Williams, who returned after missing the game against Richmond with an ankle injury, sealed the victory by knocking down two free throws with three seconds remaining in overtime. Though he was favoring that ankle, the Rams were able to maintain their composure due to his presence.
Blowing such a large lead didn’t sit well with Rhoades, but he feels pulling out a close win only increases the team’s brotherhood.
“Finding a way to win this way is really good, it makes us even tighter,” Rhoades said. “I think it only helps, especially at this time of the year. You want to try to build as much momentum as you can going into March … today was a momentum builder.”
Issac Vann, who had 10 points, was the only VCU player not named Tillman to score in double figures. Marcus Santos-Silva gave the Rams productive minutes off the bench when giving Tillman a quick breather, scoring six points and blocking three shots. And Malik Crowfield split time with Williams throughout the game, keeping the ship steady when on the floor.
Dayton got a valiant effort from its starters, with Jalen Crutcher leading the way with 21 points, eight assists and seven boards. Jordan Davis added 19 points, Trey Landers finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, Josh Cunningham had 15 points and Darrell Davis chipped in with 10.
VCU (15-10, 7-5 Atlantic 10) maintained its pace in the conference standings with the win and is just a half-game back of both Davidson, who the Rams host on Valentine’s Day, and St. Bonaventure. Dayton (11-13, 5-7 A-10) took a dip in the standings and will travel to George Mason to face the Patriots on Feb. 14.
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