“I told them to get three stops and we’ll win the game,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said afterward. “And that’s just what they did. They were maybe our three best stops of the season.”
For the Flyers those were three of the biggest misfires of the year.
Twice the Flyers couldn’t get a shot off and as the 30 -second shot clock was about to evaporate, they launched desperation threes, one by Kostas Antetokounmpo and the other by Jalen Crutcher. Neither hit the rim and the shot clock buzzer sounded.
Then – on a play they should have scored on – the Flyers ended up with Landers down and the team on the way to a season-ending knockout.
UD had a mismatch with a smaller VCU player suddenly stuck guarding Josh Cunningham, the Flyers 6-foot-7 workhorse inside.
But instead Rams guard De’Riante Jenkins flicked the ball away from Cunningham and another VCU player grabbed it and quickly passed it over to Williams.,
Landers explained what happened next: “I was coming over to foul and Williams ended coming over and he head-butted me. But it wasn’t nothing crazy. I’m fine.”
Williams more or less agreed, though he thought Landers initiated the crack of heads: “He was just trying to get the ball. He didn’t mean to head butt me or nothing. Both our heads were sort of leaning forward when we hit.”
“Yeah, it hurt but ain’t no time to worry about it then. You gotta win.”
VCU did, beating the Flyers for the second time in a row after Dayton won the first of their three games this season in resounding fashion at UD Arena, 106-79.
When Thursday’s game ended, the Flyers didn’t seem to know what to do at first. They were stepping into new territory.
The season is over.
This will be the first time in five years the Flyers aren’t headed to the NCAA Tournament.
And at 14-17, they finish with the program’s first losing record in 12 years.
“Going in the locker room here afterward, there were tears being shed,” Flyers first-year coach Anthony Grant said. “They wanted the season to continue. They wanted to continue to play with each other.
“I’m grateful for the effort the guys had and the buy-in they had in what myself and the staff asked of them. I’m proud of the group we had. There’s a lot this team went through in the course of the season.”
There were some good things this year.
Players showed growth, no one more so on Thursday than Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman who played his first season of college ball.
Against the Rams he was often intimidating inside, soaring up once to block of the 6-5 Jenkins, who had gotten past his UD defender and was coming down the lane for what he though was an easy layup.
Antetokounmpo got so high it looked as if he could have blocked it with his elbow. After that there were several times the Rams opted not to try a layup and instead kicked the ball back outside.
Landers, who played in only nine games last season as a freshman, became a team leader this season. Thursday he led the way again with 19 points, but his contributions aren’t measured just by the box score.
Late in the game, Grant had Landers and four freshmen on the court – Antetokounmpo, Matej Svoboda, Crutcher and Jordan Davis.
A late recruiting pickup by Grant, who took over from Archie Miller in the spring, Crutcher surprised everyone this season with the way he could run the point
On the flip side of all this was the meltdown of 6-foot-8 junior Xeyrius Williams, who had showed promise last season, then hurt his back, seemed to lose interest or focus and has been shut down for the season.
The official reason is back issues, though the ailment may be elsewhere.
Williams didn’t make the trip to D..C and neither did the team’s tallest player, 6-foot-11 Jordan Pierce, who only played three minutes in one game this season and is said to have had issues in the classroom and on the practice court.
And junior guard John Crosby never got off the bench again Thursday. He had decided to transfer out last season, then returned, played a while and now has become such an afterthought that Grant, on a few occasions late in the season, played walk-on Jack Westerfield instead.
Before next season I expect some house cleaning by Grant, who has made it clear he won’t sacrifice principle to win a couple of more games.
He wants guys who buy in and work hard.
“The group of guys needs to learn from this year’s experiences,” Grant said near the end of his postgame press conference. “Experience can sometimes be the best teacher.”
If the Flyers want up off the canvas, that’s a lesson to take to heart.