A few years ago, George Mason showed that a No. 11 seed from an unheralded conference can make it to the Final Four. Now league rival Virginia Commonwealth is on the verge of topping that - taking a No. 11 seed from the First Four to the Final Four.
The Rams had to win a play-in game just to secure their spot in the NCAA tournament, and have been unstoppable ever since. A series of blowouts against big-name programs from big-time conferences got them to the second weekend, and they showed Friday night that they can win the tight games, too.
Bradford Burgess made a layup off an inbounds pass with 7.1 seconds left in overtime, and Rob Brandenburg blocked a shot at the buzzer, giving VCU a 72-71 victory over Florida State in a Southwest Region semifinal. If the Rams can knock off top-seeded Kansas on Sunday, they will be headed to Houston next weekend as the biggest surprise in a tournament that's been filled with them.
"We're going to have to play much better than we did tonight," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "Our guys know that, and I think we have it in us."
The Rams (27-11) were up by nine points with 7:37 left, seemingly headed to another lopsided win. Then they nearly blew it. They scored just three more points in regulation, perhaps getting caught by the fatigue of being the only team that advanced by winning three games last week.
VCU's final attempt of the second half was blocked, giving Florida State one last shot. A long jumper didn't get over the front rim, setting up the extra period.
The Seminoles were up by one in the final seconds of overtime when Rams guard Joey Rodriguez stood underneath the basket ready to throw in the ball. VCU was going to run its favorite inbounds play, but FSU recognized what was coming and called a timeout to switch their defense.
Smart realized what the Seminoles were doing, so he switched to another play.
Burgess ended up weaving through several screens while Rodriguez made a ball fake to get the big guy guarding him leaning the wrong direction. With the 5-second count close to expiring, Rodriguez skipped the ball between two defenders, right to Burgess. He bobbled the pass a bit, then banked it in before the defense could recover.
"I had been messing up - my layups were getting blocked," said Burgess, who scored 26 points, making 6 of 7 3-pointers. "I wasn't going to the hole strong enough, and I said if I got the chance I wanted to win the game for the team."
Florida State's Derwin Kitchen, who missed the potential winner in regulation, had the ball in his hands again on the final possession in overtime. He drove the baseline, then passed it outside. The shot may have been too late to count, but Brandenburg avoided any controversy by swatting it, sending into the regional finals this program from the Colonial Athletic Association that had never even been to the regional semifinals.
"Guts - just guts and want-to,'' Smart said of his team's recovery after its second-half pratfall.
The NCAA tournament selection committee was widely criticized for letting VCU into the field after the Rams lost five of its last eight games. Smart used that us-vs.-the-world schtick for motivation and half-jokingly said Thursday that he hoped it continued even if they beat Florida State. Well, there's no doubt they will hear it leading up to their matchup against Kansas.