February 13, 2015

VCU's once firm grip of first place in the Atlantic 10 has evaporated.

Though George Washington is only one game out of a four-way tie atop the conference, the Colonials have a thin margin for error in their quest for a second straight NCAA tournament bid.

No. 20 VCU will try to end George Washington's 12-game home winning streak Saturday.

Injuries and poor shooting have derailed what had been a dominant start in league play for the Rams (18-6, 8-3). They've dropped three of four, shooting 37.0 percent in the losses, falling into a tie with Dayton, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

"We've got to turn the page," said JeQuan Lewis, who had a career-high 26 points in Wednesday's 74-69 double-overtime loss to La Salle. "We've got to move on and get ready for George Washington. There's no need for us to hang our heads."

The Rams lost senior point guard Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury in a 64-55 loss to Richmond on Jan. 31. Leading scorer Treveon Graham (16.2 ppg) has missed the last two games with a high left ankle sprain and it's unclear when he'll return.

They've forced an average of 12.7 turnovers in the last three losses compared to a 17.0 average on the season, clearly impacted by the loss of Weber, who averaged a Division-I best 3.9 steals per game.

VCU's long-distance shooting is also slumping with the team going 26 for 106 (24.5 percent) from 3-point range over the last five games, making 5.2 per contest. The Rams had been hitting 36.6 percent of their attempts from long distance and making 9.1.

Melvin Johnson, who leads the team with 55 3-pointers, has been shooting particularly poorly. He is 7 for 30 from deep over his last six games (23.3 percent) after shooting 36.4 percent previously. VCU is 5-5 when he fails to make at least two.

The Rams were only 5 of 22 from beyond the arc at home against George Washington on Jan. 27, but limited the Colonials to a 1-for-17 3-point performance in a 72-48 victory. Freshman Terry Larrier had 15 points to help pick up Graham and Johnson, who combined for 15.

That was the first of three losses in four games for George Washington (17-7, 7-4) which fell 78-62 at Duquesne on Wednesday, squandering a chance to join the first-place tie. The Colonials shot 31.9 percent with starting guards Patricio Garino and Joe McDonald totaling 11 points on 4-of-22 shooting.

"They're sitting in a 2-3 zone and we're 2 for our first 20 shots," coach Mike Lonergan said. " ... I just think our mental toughness is really lacking right now for whatever reason."

Saturday marks the first of four remaining games against teams George Washington is even with or trailing in the standings, and a win Saturday would help its position on the tournament bubble immensely.

The Colonials have won 12 straight at home, including 10 this season by an average of 16.5 points. They've lost their last six home contests against ranked teams since an 85-75 win over No. 19 Saint John's on Dec. 2, 2000, however.

VCU's four victories in five meetings since joining the Atlantic 10 have been by an average of 21.7 points. Garino scored a career-high 25 in 28 minutes off the bench in George Washington's 76-66 home win last season.

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