(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor.)
In what was perhaps the biggest home game in the history of Belk Arena, Davidson (22-6, 13-4 in A-10) put on a show in front of a capacity crowd and nationally televised audience, throttling conference-power VCU (21-9, 11-6 in A-10) 82-55. It was the Wildcats’ strongest statement of intent yet that this is a team that deserves a bid to the NCAA Tournament. As the clock wore down, fans got a chance to salute this team one final team for an incredible season.
Picked 12th out of 14th in the Atlantic 10 by the coaches preseason, and thought by many to be too small and not tough enough to even win a game in the new conference, the Wildcats are now one win away from winning a conference championship. A win on the road at Duquesne on Saturday night would seal it. Bob McKillop and his bunch of “Southern Conference quality players” have sure quieted all the doubters. A media room that was three people strong at the start of the year is now filled with national reporters who can’t help but take notice.
“I don’t remember where we picked them in the opening poll, but it wasn’t twelfth” VCU coach Shaka Smart said postgame, “Coach [McKillop] has done a great job. He has these guys playing with a very good fluidity. The way they pass the ball and share the ball and get each other shots is really impressive.”
Never trailing, Davidson used two large runs in the first half to build a 20-point lead before Shaka Smart’s disbelieving eyes. The Wildcats were knocking down shots and feeding off of the energy from the sold-out crowd as they forced turnovers and got out in transition from the get-go. Davidson kept the lead around 22 for much of the second half as they kept VCU from gaining even the slightest bit of momentum. The Wildcats held VCU to a lone three pointer, and forced 16 turnovers.
On his senior night, Tyler Kalinoski ’15 showed why many believe he should win the Atlantic 10 player of the year award with a stellar performance. Ever composed, Kalinoski was a steady outlet against VCU’s press and was everywhere on the defensive end, grabbing loose balls and even stepping in for a charge. And offensively, he was as good as ever, knocking down tough shots and finding cutters in the lane. On his final night in Belk Arena, Kalinoski finished with 22 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. After bloodying up his jersey, the senior completed the game with number 20 on his back. But it’s safe to say Wildcat fans will never forget number four and all he did for leading the program through this tough, transitional phase.
Davidson held Treveon Graham, the presumed favorite for Atlantic 10 player of the year, to a single rebound and a single turnover on the stat sheet in the first half. Graham’s first points didn’t come until two minutes after halftime. The VCU senior finished with 4 points on 2-7 shooting. After showing his versatility by guarding big men for much of the conference season, Jordan Barham ’16 was locked in defending Graham on the perimeter, shutting him down.
Barham did a little bit of everything tonight. When he wasn’t nose-to-nose with Graham on the defensive end, he was finishing plays at the rim and soaring for rebounds. Tonight, he grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds to go along with 13 points on 6-9 shooting. Barham’s improvement this year has been huge for this team, as he has given the team a vital second option on both ends of the floor.
Jack Gibbs ’17, the reigning A-10 player of the week, also baffled the VCU defense. He was at the center of just about every big play, whether it was knocking down shots or creating just enough space to thread the ball through to a cutter. Gibbs filled out the stat sheet with 15 points, 6 rebounds and 8 asssists.
Gibbs’s backcourt mate Brian Sullivan ’16 continued his hot streak of play with another stellar showing from behind the arc, scoring all 11 of his points in the first half. He has now hit three or more triples in six of the last eight contests. But beyond his marksmanship, the junior deserves credit for his ball-handling and his defensive work tonight. No matter the stage, Sullivan wants the ball. But he has become so much more than just a shooter this year.
“[My players] shock me everyday,” Coach McKillop said after the game, “They shock me the way they come to practice and want to get better. They’re not content. There’s no fat about winning. There’s a quiet confidence with a balance of humility, which is quite a combination.”
Against VCU’s famed “havoc” style of game, the Wildcats looked quite composed for much of the night. It was Davidson winning every loose ball and running the fast-breaks. The Rams were unable to put Davidson’s guards under continued pressure despite running a full-court press the entire game. VCU piled up fouls inside out steals. Davidson’s turnovers mostly came in the half-court, which while undesirable, didn’t let VCU get out in transition.
In the first half, Davidson came out on fire, feeding off the unbelievable energy inside the building to build a 14-2 lead just after the first media timeout, forcing four early turnovers and hitting their first five shots. After the Rams settled down for a few minutes, Barham and Sullivan knocked down two consecutive triples to bring the house down as Smart called a timeout with Davidson leading 29-13. Another Sullivan three with 5:40 left extended the lead to 21, capping a 13-2 two run. At the half, Davidson led 40-21.
Davidson outrebounded VCU 41-32 on the night, getting big minutes from Andrew McAuliffe ’17. Also notable was the return of “speedo guy.” Luke Burton, an Atlantic 10 champion swimmer in the 200 backstroke brought free throw antics to a new level in the first half, stripping to a speedo behind the basket. VCU was just 2-7 from the line in that half, and 12-24 overall. Burton’s antics were all the rage in the media room postgame.
This was VCU’s third loss in a row and sixth in the last ten games since star guard Briante Weber injured his knee at the end of January. They’ll be dancing in a couple weeks, but the Rams’ lackluster play and Shaka Smart’s disillusioned look during the post-game press conference showed that this is a team that is nearly crisis mode.
For Davidson, Ali Mackay ’15, a senior from Scotland, got the start in his last ever home game as McKillop continued the tradition of starting seniors on senior night. He also exited to a large hand in the final minute.
When asked, “Could you have scripted this final game any better?” Kalinoski could only laugh, adding with great humility, “I don’t think so.”
Davidson will close the regular season on Saturday with a trip to Duquesne with a conference title on the line. Tipoff is at 7pm. Don’t miss it.