The second-year head coach apologized to his team and offered a blunt pep talk: "It was basically forget about the refs, forget Kansas," he said. "This is all about us and we've got to do what we've got to do."
When it was over, VCU had done it, taking out top-seeded Kansas, 71-61, in the NCAA Southwest Regional final. In the ensuing delirium, some fans began cheering at the sight of several older men in suits. "Selection committee," those fans yelled in tribute. The men indeed were part of the NCAA selection committee, sudden celebrities in the Virginia Commonwealth orbit after making the surprising decision to put the Rams into the tournament. Now the most unlikely team ever to reach the Final Four will face Butler on Saturday in an all-Cinderella matchup in Houston.
Officially, VCU (28-11) becomes the third No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four, after LSU in 1986 and another Colonial Athletic Association miracle team, George Mason, in 2006. But sources said VCU really was a 12th seed, bumped up to an 11th seed because of all the bracket rules that keep teams from playing each other. If the NCAA hadn't expanded from 65 to 68 teams this season, VCU, a fourth-place finisher in the Colonial Athletic Association, wouldn't have been in. At least George Mason had won the Colonial in 2006.
"Their players could play for us any day," Kansas coach Bill Self said after his team made just 2 of 21 three-pointers and just 15 of 28 free throws. "If we played shirts and skins today, you wouldn't have much of a difference on players or how they look. They've got some good-looking kids. They got what they deserved today. They certainly outplayed us."
As Rams guards drained a barrage of first-half threes, racing to a shocking 18-point lead, there was no fear factor. VCU super-sub Brandon Rozzell dropped one of his four first-half three-pointers from right in front of the Kansas bench and then ran his mouth at that shell-shocked group.
Kansas (35-3), led by the twin tower Morris brothers of North Philadelphia, Marcus (20 points, 16 rebounds) and Markieff (13 points, 12 rebounds, 8 turnovers), got within two points. But VCU counterpunched.
Point guard Joey Rodriguez - ignoring the air ball he had just thrown up, followed by a layup attempt he had gotten blocked - drained a three-pointer off the dribble, pushing VCU's lead back out to 60-52 with five minutes left. ("I'm short – I get my shot blocked all the time," Rodriguez said.
After Marcus Morris scored on a putback, Rodriguez drove and threw back outside to Bradford Burgess, who had made six three-pointers and the game-winning shot Friday against Florida State. A wide-open Burgess drained a three from the top of the key.
"That game was all about style of play," Smart said. "We got the style going the way that we wanted in the first half. And if you watched closely, their players were tugging on their shorts for much of the game."
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.