PITTSBURGH (AP) One of the many mottos incorporated by Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart is ”poise or panic.”
The 17th-ranked Rams flirted with the latter before finding the former in the final minutes of a 70-64 victory over Duquesne on Saturday.
Playing without scoring leader Treveon Graham – whose balky ankle kept him out of the lineup for the first time this season – the Rams nearly squandered a 14-point lead before extending their winning streak to 10.
Graham tried to go. He went through warmups but the pain was too much. Smart admitted the news – delivered about 10 minutes before tipoff – rattled him.
”I need to do a better job,” Smart said. ”I just like that kid so much. I was upset that he wasn’t going to be able to be out there. You’ve got to be able to move on.”
VCU (15-3, 5-0 Atlantic 10) survived, but it wasn’t easy. JeQuan Lewis scored a season-high 16 points but the Rams needed Melvin Johnson’s 3-pointer with 57 seconds left to thwart a comeback attempt by the Dukes, who twice had the ball down a basket with a chance to take the lead.
Instead, VCU held on. Lewis tipped an entry pass by Duquesne’s Micah Mason with the Rams up 64-62. VCU worked the shot clock searching for a good look and Johnson knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game.
”That was big,” Lewis said. ”It kind of took all that weight off our shoulders and let us focus defensively because we kind of struggled getting the ball in the basket in the second half. That was a big 3 by him.”
Derrick Colter led the Dukes (6-10, 1-4) with 14 points, but Duquesne fell to 3-12 at Consol Energy Center.
”We have to work harder and challenge each other to work harder and knock this wall down,” Duquesne coach Jim Ferry said. ”We’ve got to pull these out.”
The Rams have rallied in the last six weeks, responding to a 17-point home loss to No. 2 Virginia by reeling off nine in a row, including a victory at Cincinnati and a 65-60 win at Rhode Island on Tuesday behind 26 points and eight rebounds from Graham, including 16 points in the second half after turning his ankle.
The ankle, however, didn’t respond quickly to treatment and VCU was forced to find out if it could win without one of the A-10’s most dynamic players. The answer, at least against the Dukes, was a begrudging yes.
Lewis said some of his teammates were ”bummed” about losing Graham. The Rams also lost Doug Brooks to a knee injury in the first half, shortening their bench considerably. They held on despite shooting just 33 percent (9 of 27) over the final 20 minutes.
”We got a little too comfortable when we came out in the second half,” Lewis said. ”We saw the (halftime) score and was like, `We good.’ We let up a little bit.”
Duquesne chipped away thanks to relentless work on the boards. The Dukes outrebounded VCU 44-28, outscored the Rams 24-14 in the paint and appeared to have momentum when Darius Lewis hit a hook shot in the lane to make it 64-62 with 2:25 to play. The Dukes had the ball and a chance to take the lead with 1:30 remaining, but Micah Mason committed the 15th of Duquesne’s 16 turnovers, and Johnson responded with VCU’s 12th and final 3-pointer.
”Melvin had a little bit of space and he rose up and shot it,” Smart said. ”We feel good anytime he gets a good look from outside.”
VCU: The Rams are 5-0 in the A-10 for the first time. VCU last started 5-0 in conference play in 2007 while playing in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Duquesne: The Dukes rebounded somewhat from a 13-of-34 performance at the free-throw line in a loss to Saint Louis on Wednesday. Duquesne went 14 of 22 from the line. The Dukes are shooting just 59 percent from the line on the season.
VCU: Travels to St. Louis next Friday night.
Duquesne: Hosts St. Bonaventure on Thursday night.