SAN ANTONIO, Tex. -- In the week leading up to VCU's Sweet 16 appearance, the Mason Magic drumbeat thumped louder and louder. The upstart Rams were coming from the same exact spot in the bracket -- 11-seed, upper-right corner -- as their CAA Final Four forebearers after both teams used BracketBusters wins at Wichita State to bolster borderline at-large credentials.
But on Friday, with seven ticks left in overtime against Florida State, the Rams pulled off their greatest magic trick yet: For a split second, they made the Seminoles' stifling defense disappear.
That moment was all Bradford Burgess needed to score the easiest of his game-high 26 points, on a wide-open layup off an inbounds play. It gave VCU a pulsating 72-71 win. It also contained a bit of sleight of hand. According to Burgess, the winning play was "somewhat" of a screw-up.
"Brandon bumped into Jamie's man on a screen," Burgess said. "I was supposed to screen for Brandon, but he got caught under the basket, so I just slipped to the basket and Joey found me under the basket."
The play VCU ended up running was a second option to begin with. After Florida State swatted a ball out of bounds on a Joey Rodrigiez drive, the Rams called timeout and drew up what Smart afterward referred to as the team's favorite out-of-bounds play, a set with multiple scoring options. After seeing the alignment, Florida State called its own timeout -- and inadvertently tipped off Smart.
"When they called timeout, I could see one the [their] assistant coaches telling the guys walking off the court that [we] were going to run that play. They had it scouted," Smart said afterward. "It was a pretty easy decision to switch to something different."
That overtime was necessary at all was a surprise given the way the game's first 32 minutes unfolded. VCU was shockingly effective in executing its offense. For the game, the Rams made 12 of 26 from three-point range, with Burgess responsible for half of the makes. With 7:37 left, VCU led 62-53 and looked set to grab its fourth straight double-digit win.
Then the Seminoles' defense finally got its bearings. Slowly, cruelly, the vice tightened. Ram drives were rebuffed. Jump shots were contested and deflected. Even free throws were missed. VCU scored just three points the rest of regulation and were caught from behind on a deep Chris Singleton trey with 45 seconds left. The skein continued in the extra session, with the Rams eking out only five more points prior to the game-winning bucket.
"I think we kind of rushed. We weren't running our sets crisp enough, running them sharp," freshman guard Rob Brandenberg said when asked about the late lull that almost tripped the Rams. "They're a great defensive team -- a lot of long arms, lot of deflections. We weren't being strong with the ball with our passes. It almost lost us the game, but we battled the storm and we're on to the Elite Eight."
There, they'll find top-seeded Kansas and yet another chance to mimic Mason's mojo from 2006. The Patriots took down No. 1 seed Connecticut in overtime their regional final that year. Now VCU has the chance to strike another historic blow for the league Smart called "by far the most underrated" in the country.
It's already been a storybook season for the league, with a record three NCAA bids. Now the Rams have a chance to make some history of their own. Not only could they give the CAA its second Final Four team in six seasons, but they would become the first team ever to win five games to get there.
The next show is on Sunday. Can the Rams wow the audience again?