NEW YORK (AP) — As VCU prepared to cut down the nets at Barclays Center, its band — The Peppas — broke into a rocking rendition of Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind.”
For all the Rams' success in the Atlantic 10 in recent years, they have had few opportunities to party in Brooklyn.
This time, with a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, VCU earned a chance to celebrate.
Jalen DeLoach had 13 points and 10 rebounds, and top-seeded VCU beat second-seeded Dayton 68-56 on Sunday to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament for the first time in eight years.
“To get to the championship game at VCU is something we want to do all the time, but we want to go win and to win it you got to go take it,” coach Mike Rhoades said. “I thought, at least the last 10 minutes of that game, we made plays, we had aggressiveness, we had toughness around the rim and rebounding and our defense showed up.”
VCU held Dayton to six points and no field goals over the final 10:12.
Ace Baldwin added 16 points and seven assists, sending the Rams (27-7) to the NCAA tourney with a nine-game winning streak and a title that has often alluded them during an otherwise impressive run of consistency.
VCU played in the A-10 final six times from 2013-21, winning just once in 2015 when it beat Dayton.
DaRon Holmes II tried to carry the Flyers (22-12) to their first A-10 title since 2003 and first NCAA bid in six years. Holmes had 28 points and 16 rebounds, but didn't get enough help in the second half.
“They did a pretty good plan of executing their game plan in the second half,” Holmes said. “We just couldn't fix it.”
The 6-foot-10 sophomore was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, averaging 22 points in three games at Barclays Center.
VCU earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2021, but the Rams haven't played in the tournament since 2019. VCU had to forfeit its first-round game in 2021 because of COVID-19 protocols.
“It hurt a lot,” Baldwin said. Now, with another shot, “We plan to make a run,” he said.
The Rams and Flyers split two regular-season games, decided by a total of three points. The rubber match was more of the same.
The Flyers bolted to a 10-point lead early in the second half, but Baldwin tied it at 47 with a 3 with 11:50 left in the second half and the Rams slowly edged away from there.
“I said we will not win the game if we don't get tougher on defense,” Rhoades said.
VCU converted three straight second-chance opportunities into seven points in the final 3 1/2 minutes, with DeLoach's work on the offensive glass spurring the effort. Brandon Johns muscled in a layup that gave the Rams a 65-56 lead with 1:57 left.
A day after Dayton's Toumani Camara went 12 for 13 from the floor in the semifinals against Fordham, he got into foul trouble and went scoreless in the first half against VCU. He fouled out with six points and six rebounds.
The 6-9 Mustapha Amzil stepped up to pair with Holmes to wear out the Rams inside. The two bigs combined to shoot 10 for 14 from the floor and score 29 points as Dayton took a 36-30 lead at halftime.
The Atlantic 10 will be a one-bid league in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Typically one of the strongest mid-major conferences, the A-10 put six teams in the NCAA field in 2014 to cap a run of three years in which it had a total of 15 bids.
Dayton was 28-2 and on its way to being one of the top seeds in the 2020 NCAA Tournament before March Madness was cancelled by the pandemic.
But the conference has slipped over the past couple of seasons, putting only two teams in the NCAAs each of the last two seasons.
Last year, Richmond upset Davidson in the A-10 final to seemingly steal a bid for the conference, but the first team out of the field of 68 turned out to be Dayton.
Dayton: The Flyers haven't been in the NCAA Tournament since a run of four straight appearances from 2014-17. They'll hope for an NIT bid.
“There’s a big level of disappointment that we weren’t able to finish the job,” coach Anthony Grant said.
VCU: The Rams will be making their 10th NCAA appearance since 2011, when coach Shaka Smart led them from the First Four to Final Four.
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