Davidson’s first season in the Atlantic 10 had already resulted in a regular-season championship. But chances for a conference tournament title for the top-seed Wildcats were washed away Saturday in a 93-73 semifinal loss against fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
A day after overcoming an 18-point deficit and rallying past La Salle in a quarterfinal, the Wildcats (24-7) came up short against the Rams and had a 10-game winning streak snapped. VCU (25-9) will face Dayton on Sunday for the championship.
Davidson trailed VCU (25-9) by 22 points early in the second half. But after cutting the Rams’ lead to five with 10 minutes left, the Wildcats ran out of answers.
“I thought we were going to win,” said Davidson junior guard Brian Sullivan. “At that point, we had a lot of confidence and we’ve had some impressive comeback wins already this season. But this time it wasn’t enough.”
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Instead, the Rams dominated the final moments and won going away.
The Wildcats must now wait until Sunday to learn what’s next. Based on their regular-season play, Davidson will likely receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
“We have a body of work that’s pretty impressive,” said Wildcats coach Bob McKillop. “You win for the duration of the season, then you play pretty darned good basketball as you close out the season to win 10 out of 11 games. With 24 wins, a (regular-season) championship and getting to the semis of the conference tournament, I think that’s a pretty good statement about where we belong.”
On March 5, Davidson had beaten VCU 82-55 at the Wildcats’ Belk Arena. Saturday, the Wildcats jumped ahead again, taking a 16-4 lead early in the game. This time, VCU responded.
“It was humiliating when we were down there,” said Rams forward Treveon Graham (18 points), who played for McKillop on the USA’s World University Games team in 2013. “When we played at Davidson, we weren’t playing our game. We wanted to come out here and attack from the get-go.”
After falling behind 16-4, the Rams’ constant full-court pressure clicked and they closed the half by outscoring Davidson by 28 points to lead 44-28 at halftime.
VCU stretched the lead to 55-33 with 15 minutes, 19 seconds left before Davidson went on another run.
The Wildcats outscored VCU 19-2 over the next five minutes and cut the lead to 57-52 on a 3-pointer by Tyler Kalinoski. Just as quickly, it turned back the Rams’ way as they scored eight consecutive points to pull away again.
“Their full-court press, it kind of pressures us and we took some bad shots, which led to them getting good shots,” said Kalinoski, whose 19 points led the Wildcats. “We knew it was going to be an up-and-down game. We knew it was going to be a street fight. We knew they were going to make a run. We knew we were going to make a run.”
The Rams, the preseason favorites to win the Atlantic 10, had been struggling since losing point guard Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury in January. But VCU has another game to play before it begins thinking about the NCAA tournament.
That’s where Davidson’s focus already is.
“I don’t know how it works, but over the course of the season, we definitely showed we’re one of the top (68),” said Sullivan.