Not that Shaka Smart holds a grudge or anything.
But the first thing the Virginia Commonwealth coach did after his team’s 59-46 NCAA “First Four “ victory over Southern California on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio, was to take a shot at those who questioned whether his team even belonged in the tournament.
“You guys think Jay Bilas watched that game?” he said about the ESPN analyst, one of many who didn’t think the Rams were worthy of making the 68-team field.
On this night, they sure looked as if they could play with anyone.
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Jamie Skeen scored 16 points, and VCU more than held its own inside against the bigger and stronger Trojans.
“It feels really good because a lot of people were doubting us,” Skeen said. “We were able to come out and prove some people wrong. Instead of just talking about it, we just came out here and played.”
The 11th-seeded teams traded elbows and punishing defense all night, with the Rams (24-11) pulling away down the stretch to set up a game against sixth-seeded Georgetown (21-10) on Friday in Chicago.
Joey Rodriguez had eight points and five assists for VCU, but was one of many standouts for the Rams.
Even though the Trojans started two 6-foot-10 wide-bodies inside, the Rams held a 40-31 edge in rebounding.
“We really followed the game plan in terms of what we were trying to do to stop USC,” said Smart, the second-youngest coach in the NCAA field at 33. “They obviously have a lot of weapons. Our guys did a really good job for 40 minutes on the defensive end. This is as good as we’ve played defensively.
“Early on offensively we were a little jittery. But our guys really settled down and we made more than enough shots as the game wore on.”
Jio Fontan had 14 points and Nikola Vucevic 11 for USC (19-15), which had just one field goal over the final nine minutes.
Vucevic, a first-team all-Pacific-10 Conference performer, had 14 rebounds and Alex Stepheson added 10. But the Rams had six players with at least three, led by Bradford Burgess with 10.
“They did a good job on defense,” Vucevic said. “They had a guy on me the whole time. They took me out of the game.”
After trailing by as many as five points in the first half, the Rams broke free in the second half with their 3-point shooting.
USC pulled as close as 44-43, but then VCU pulled away again.
Texas-San Antonio 70, Alabama State 61: Guard Melvin Johnson III scored a career-high 29 points in leading the Roadrunners (20-13) to the victory over the Hornets (17-18) in the “First Four” round in Dayton. UTSA heads to Cleveland for a game Friday against top-seeded Ohio State.