NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - It was a game with a feeling of March Madness in the air, even though it was just the first of December.
Virginia Commonwealth, led by Juvonte Reddic's 18 points and 11 rebounds, ended Belmont's nation-leading 23-game home win streak 81-68 on Sunday. The two successful mid-major programs have each made six NCAA Tournament appearances in the past decade.
'Their crowd was into it, our crowd was into it,' VCU senior Melvin Johnson said. 'That's a great team, they've got some great players. We just had to respond to adversity, and that's what we're going to face all year on the road.'
Johnson, who hit four 3-pointers, and Treveon Graham each scored 16 points for the Rams (6-2), who fell behind 12 points in the first half. VCU had fallen from the AP Top 25 last Monday after two losses the previous week.
Johnson sank three 3-pointers during a 22-2 run that gave VCU a 66-52 advantage with 6:05 remaining. The Rams had hit three straight treys, the other by JeQuan Lewis (12 points), to retake the lead 53-50 after Belmont went ahead 50-44.
'I appreciate VCU playing this game,' said Bruins Coach Rick Byrd, whose team hosted a near-capacity crowd. 'It's just hard for us to get quality opponents. They're an established program, and they didn't have to do it. It created a tremendous atmosphere here today.'
Blake Jenkins and J.J. Mann each scored 14 points for Belmont (7-2), which has received a program-best 31 votes in the AP poll after earlier wins at then-No. 12 North Carolina and against Indiana State. Drew Windler scored 13 points for the Bruins, Caleb Chowbay, 12, and Evan Bradds added 10.
VCU overcame a 12-point deficit to go up 38-35 at halftime, taking its first lead on Graham's 3-pointer. Graham scored eight of his 12 first-half points during a 12-4 run before the half.
'I thought Belmont's home winning streak obviously is extremely impressive,' VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. 'You don't do that without sustaining excellence, and that's what Coach Byrd and his team has done here.'
Belmont sophomore Craig Bradshaw, who has a concussion history, never played after walking to the locker room to get checked out at 2:05 before halftime after a scary collision with Reddic. Both lay on the floor for a while and Bradshaw was held stationary by medical staff.
The Bruins were also missing point guard Reece Chamberlain, who injured his ankle earlier this season.
'They wore us down, and our lack of depth and injury situation really - I'm not trying to make excuses - but it made it tough,' Byrd said. 'We had guys tired. Caleb Chowbay was the only point guard we could have on the floor and defensively that hurt us several times.'
The Bruins got off to a quick 6-0 lead on 3-pointers by Windler and Bradshaw, then made it 9-2 on Windler's second trey. VCU went on a 6-0 run on Rob Bradenberg's 3 and Lewis' three-point play before Mann's 3-pointer put the Bruins 4-for-4 beyond the arc to start the game.
Belmont's Jenkins scored six straight points and led a 14-3 spurt that pushed the advantage to 23-11 before VCU called a timeout and Graham scored his first basket over eight minutes into the game.
'I thought our guys did a good job of responding to adversity,' Smart said. 'Belmont hit us with a great punch in the mouth early. We got down 12 but kept battling and guys like Mel made some big plays.'
VCU, creating its patented 'Havoc' with pressure, whittled the lead to 23-17 before Jenkins nailed a 3-pointer. The Rams fought back to a 31-31 tie after Graham was fouled behind the arc and hit all three free throws.
VCU, leading the nation in steals and forced turnovers per game, forced Belmont into 21 turnovers compared with 15 for the Rams. Briante Weber, tops in the country in steals, had four of the Rams' 15 thefts.
'A lot of people think this will be his best team even though he's had a Final Four team and it very well might be,' Byrd said.
Mann, who hit the winning shot for Belmont against UNC, finished with four 3-pointers after two late in a comeback attempt. The senior also joined the 1,000-point club, but was held to 5 of 19 from the field.
'Mann's a good player, that's why he hit those 3's at the end because good players keep coming at you,' Smart said. 'But for us to hold him below 30 percent from the field, that gives us a great chance to win.'
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