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No doubting Rams anymore

Virginia Commonwealth whoops it up on the court after winning a region championship for the first time in school history.

Associated Press

Virginia Commonwealth whoops it up on the court after winning a region championship for the first time in school history.

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The team that many thought should not be in the NCAA Tournament rushed the floor at the final buzzer, then delved deep into the crowd for hugs and disbelieving smiles as another vanquished and surprised opponent shuffled silently off the court.

A topsy-turvy, wildly unpredictable tournament had its most surprising moment Sunday as 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth continued what might be the most improbable run in history, beating top-seeded Kansas 71-61 to reach the Final Four in Houston.

"Once again we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game," said VCU's 33-year-old coach, Shaka Smart, who wore the net clipped from one of the Alamodome baskets around his neck like a lei. "But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters."

VCU (28-11), the surprise winner of the Southwest Region, will play a national semifinal game Saturday against Butler, which navigated through the Southeast Region as an eighth seed.

Kansas (35-3), the last of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament, had won its previous three games by an average of 17.7 points, all over opponents seeded ninth or lower. To get to its 14th Final Four, Kansas needed to beat teams seeded 16th, ninth, 12th and, on Sunday, No. 11 VCU.

But the hot-shooting Rams sprinted to an 18-point lead in the first half. More impressive, they withstood a Kansas rally that cut their lead to 46-44 with 13:11 remaining.

"We're crushed," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But at the end of the day, we tried real hard and just came up empty against a team that was better than us today."

VCU became the third 11th-seeded team to reach the Final Four, and the first that needed to win five games to get there, thanks to the expansion of the field to 68.

Before its latest and greatest victory, VCU sat in its locker room and silently watched a big screen, set in the middle of the narrow room, showing more clips of television pundits saying they would lose. That trick had worked four times before.

"Either you get motivated or you curl up in a ball," said VCU's Ed Nixon, who attended Lakewood High. "We got motivated."

And the Rams were headed home — to what they expected to be a huge reception at VCU's urban campus in Richmond. They will return to Texas this week for the Final Four.

Players pondered whether anyone believed they could go this far.

"Us," guard Bradford Burgess said. "The city. That's about it."

VCU's 11-0 run in the first half, behind a fast-moving offense and a frenetic defense, gave the Rams a quick 20-10 lead. The Jayhawks were unusually flustered and never fully recovered.

"All the pressure was on them," Burgess said. "They were the No. 1 seed, and no one expected us to be here."

Kansas could find no one to make a field goal other than 6-foot-9 forward Marcus Morris for the first 11 minutes. Markieff Morris broke the string with a 3-pointer with 8:41 left.

The Jayhawks arrived as the best shooting team in the country, making 51.4 percent of their attempts. But they had their worst shooting game of the season at the worst possible time, making only 22 of 62 shots (35.5 percent). Most damaging was their 2-of-21 shooting from 3-point range and their 15-of-28 rate from the free-throw line.

VCU had no such trouble, making 12 of 25 3-pointers. Forward Jamie Skeen made four on his way to 26 points.

"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 watch closely, their players were tugging on their shorts for much of the game. When you don't have your legs, it's hard to make outside shots."

VCU 71

Kansas 61

No doubting Rams anymore 03/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 27, 2011 11:04pm]

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