The Charlotte 49ers suffered their first loss of the season at Halton Arena Saturday night, 68-61, by the hands of the VCU Rams.
A packed Halton Arena started to file out with two minutes remaining as the 49ers (17-6, 5-4) continually struggled to pull the Rams' (19-5, 7-2) lead within ten points.
In the last 60 seconds the Rams allowed the 49ers to shave the separation down to the final seven-point difference, but it seemed as if the Niners were just going through the motions at that point.
Almost no fouls were committed by the 49ers in the final minute of play, allowing the Rams guards to drain precious seconds off the clock.
"I think they were trying to foul actually, on multiple occasions," said Rams Head Coach Shaka Smart on the 49ers game plan while in desperation. "It was a physical game, and it was a game where both teams probably got away with some contact at times. I think in the last minute Charlotte was trying to foul and it wasn't called for whatever reason."
Both teams were incredibly physical throughout the game, being the aggressor appeared to be the key to success in the contest. The Rams ran a full court press to start the game, and would switch to half court periodically in hopes of catching the 49ers by surprise.
Although the 49ers seemed fluster by the full court at the beginning, falling into an early hole, they surged back to make most of the game competitive.
The suffocating half court press did its job in the end and successfully shut down the 49ers perimeter passing flow for majority of the game. "We've got to get more opportunities and shot attempts," Pierria Henry said about his team's offensive production. "We were wasting time and having turnovers, and then they were outnumbering us in transition."
The Rams dictated the style of play at Halton Arena on Saturday night as they forced the 49ers to commit 17 turnovers, and scored a whopping 23 points off of them. The single most alarming statistic, besides the score, stemmed from losing the ball, because the Rams more than doubled the 49ers points off turnovers by a 23-11 margin.
The 49ers did relatively well against Juvonte Reddic (14 points, 4 rebounds), considering he's been on a tear through the Atlantic 10 this season.
Rob Brandenberg was the standout of the game; four Rams were on the court longer than he, but Brandenberg was the industrial component for their success, as the junior guard was as efficient as any coach can hope for. Shooting 58 percent (60 percent from 3-point), he finished with 21 points, 2 rebounds and a steal.
Brandenberg explained why he was so successful, "[I was] just being aggressive coming off of ball screens, there were a few times I would come off a screen and they would switch, and a big man would be about three feet away from me. I was just taking what they gave me."
The 49ers would recover from the early first-half deficit to tie the game at 22, getting the inlet passes to their big men and clutch drives to the hoop from Terrence Williams. With some promising runners and jumpers from guards E. Victor Nickerson and Henry the Niners seemed to find their niche in the Rams press, but the score would soon slip away again.
One of the major outcome-deciding portions of the game occurred with the final 90 seconds of the first half.
The Rams had a 31-28 lead with 48 seconds to play. Denzel Ingram committed one of his five turnovers with 29 seconds to play. On the ensuing Rams possession, Darius Theus completed a 3-point play after hitting a jumper with .1 seconds remaining and being fouled by Henry.
"There were some possessions in the first half where we were dialed in, and everything they were trying to get was extremely difficult," 49ers Head Coach Alan Major said on his team's play approaching the locker-room at halftime. "Against a team like this you want to string more of those periods together, but that gave them the momentum going into the half."
If there's a silver lining in this loss, its Williams' finding the form that he's been missing for most of the season; he had a very proficient night shooting the ball and led the team in points. The sophomore guard shot 83 percent, scored 13 points; compiling his second consecutive double-figures scoring game and shot 57 percent or better. Aside from the 11 rebounds Henry collected, not much can be said for the rest of the 49ers backcourt.
The Rams' forceful pressure had a noticeable impact on Henry's poor shooting (3-12), along with holding Ingram to 7 points. Nickerson showed bursts of sporadic excitement, but did seem flustered by the physicality of the Rams guards, only attempting five shots.
"They try to make the game faster, make you rush into things you don't want to do, and get you out of your offensive set," said Henry about the pressure his team faced.
The 49ers did have success on the boards and in the paint, which has been a stable advantage for the team all year. They also had success in fast-break opportunities, something they've improved on as the season's progressed.
The 49ers doubled up the Rams on boards, 36-18, and had a 42-28 advantage on points in the paint. "If we can maintain those types of percentages, especially from the field and on the glass and just get some defensive traction, I think we'll obviously see a different result," said Major.
Willie Clayton had 12 points and 4 rebounds, also forcing 2 turnovers via block and steal; he made 6-of-7 shots. Chris Braswell was effective (8 points, 5 rebounds), but just like Clayton, experienced trouble getting open and posting up consistently.
Prior to the game, the 49ers announced that that senior forward J.T. Thompson tore his right ACL agasint Temple on Wednesday and would miss the remainder of the season.
"There hasn't been one conference team send us a 'get well soon' or a bouquet of flowers, [they] could care less about our circumstances… We've got to rally around each other.""
Sticking to the talk about Thompson, Major continued, "I want to thank [JT] because he sacrificed coming here to Charlotte, going to graduate school, and working on his masters to have this opportunity."
After learning they're not invincible at Halton Arena, now 11-1, the 49ers must rebound from their first two-game skid of the season quickly. Their next Atlantic 10 matchup is against The Butler Bulldogs. The 49ers travel to Indianapolis to play No. 14 Butler (20-4, 7-2) Wednesday Feb. 13, at 7p.m.