No. 17 VCU rallies to beat Rhode Island 65-60
KINGSTON, R.I. (AP) As far as Briante Weber was concerned, the only way Treveon Graham wasn't going to re-enter the game after twisting an ankle early in the second half was if he had to use crutches.
Graham, who was forced to the bench after crashing to the floor, scored 16 of his 26 points in the second half as No. 17 Virginia Commonwealth rallied for a 65-60 victory over upset-minded Rhode Island in an Atlantic 10 Conference game Tuesday night.
''We've been together for about 4 1/2 years,'' Weber said. ''Knowing Treveon, he's a tough player. If it wasn't broken I was pretty sure he was coming back. I have belief in him no matter what. I was trying to will my team and keep everybody together. When he came back it definitely lifted up our spirits even more to know that he was going to battle through (an injury). I felt if he could do it why not all 13 of us?''
Weber with 10 points was the only other player to reach double figures for VCU (14-3, 4-0 Atlantic-10), which remained atop the conference standings and stretched its winning streak to a conference-best nine games.
Sophomore E.C. Matthews led Rhode Island (11-4, 3-1) with 22 points as his team lost for the first time in its last seven games.
''I thought our whole group showed terrific toughness and belief just hanging in there when we were down and needed to make some plays,'' VCU coach Shaka Smart said. ''Our second-half defense was much better.
''We made some adjustments on their ball screens which I think helped us. But I just can't say enough about the toughness our guys showed. That's why we won.''
VCU's improved, second-half defense was reflected in part by the fact it scored 9 points off 12 Rhode Island turnovers as it combined man-to-man with a full-court press.
Rhode Island bolted out of the gate and once it went ahead 9-7, led for the rest of the half which ended with it leading 35-28.
Virginia Commonwealth eventually went on an 11-2 run which enabled it to overcome a nine-point deficit.
After Graham shrugged off that sore ankle, he returned to the floor and scored six key points including a jumper with 2:27 remaining that put his team ahead for good at 59-58.
Weber clinched the victory by going 4-for-4 at the free throw line in the final 11.7 seconds.
''(Graham) did what the team needs him to do,'' Smart said. ''That's what Briante does. That's what really good players do. (Graham) went down early in the half with an ankle injury. I didn't know if he going to be able to go back in.
''But he's got such toughness. He was gritting his teeth and doing what the team needs him to do. We call his number a lot on offense and he gets tired and run down. But he just keeps battling and doesn't complain. He just keeps attacking.''
Virginia Commonwealth: Entering Tuesday's game, VCU had trailed a total of 36 seconds over the past 315 minutes since the end of the first half in a victory over Northern Iowa of December 13. Rhode Island ended that streak when Gilvydas Biruta's layup with 15:44 left in the first half gave his team a 9-7 lead. Overall, Virginia Commonwealth trailed for 28 minutes and 10 seconds.
Rhode Island: Matthews, who finished with 22 points, leads all active Atlantic 10 Conference players with 15 games scoring 20 or more points.
Virginia Commonwealth visits Duquesne on Saturday
Rhode Island visits Massachusetts on Saturday
Rhode Island led 49-40 with 9:04 left and was threatening to break the game open. But with Mo Alie-Cox scoring four of his overall 10 points, Virginia Commonwealth went on an 11-2 run which produced only the second tie (51-51) of the game.
Virginia Commonwealth began the play ranked third in the nation in turnovers forced per game (17.9). VCU wound up forcing Rhode Island into committing 18 turnovers.