CHICAGO — All those critics who doubted VCU, take note.
The Rams, under second-year coach Shaka Smart — a former Oregon High School athlete — are still playing. And yet another team from the big, bad Big East is heading home.
Brandon Rozzell led four players in double figures and VCU made 12 3-pointers to stun Georgetown with a 74-56 win that showed any remaining skeptics the Rams do, indeed, belong in the NCAA tournament.
The 11th-seeded Rams (25-11) now play third-seeded Purdue on Sunday in the third round of the Southwest regional.
"We've proven over the last two games that we belong here, we more than belong here," Smart said. "Sunday's going to be more about us and Purdue and who's the better team."
As the game wound down, the raucous VCU fans chanted "Jay Bilas," the ESPN analyst who said the Rams didn't belong in the 68-team field.
"Any time people disrespect you, especially on national TV, it kind of hurts you," said Joey Rodriguez, who had 17 points and seven assists. "We had an opportunity to come out here and prove people wrong and hopefully we can keep it going."
Smart, in his second year at VCU, had stints as an assistant coach at Akron, Dayton, California (Pa.), Clemson and Florida before latching on with the Colonial Athletic Association school in Richmond, Va.
In high school, he was a three-year starter for Oregon and a second-team All-Badger Conference pick as a senior. He rewrote Oregon's record books for assists, finishing as its all-time leader for a career (458), season (201) and single game (20).
He went on to a four-year starting career at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1999 and holds the program records for assists in a season (184) and career (542).
In his first season, Smart led the Rams to a 27-9 record, one win shy of the school record. The win total was also the highest in the nation among first year Division I coaches, and it earned him a two-year extension last August.
Smart hasn't been bashful about using critics' comments to fire up his team. At the Rams' lunchtime meeting Friday, Smart showed the team a video clip of ESPN's bracketologist Joe Lunardi denigrating VCU players' defensive abilities.
"Our guys are competitors. They love to respond when people disrespect them, when people doubt them. We had a game earlier in the season where an assistant coach came out in the newspaper and said that we couldn't defend. We went out and held that team to under 50. So I learned early with this team that they like a challenge."
Not even the return of point guard Chris Wright could help the sixth-seeded Hoyas, who were handed their worst loss in the NCAA tournament since a 24-point drubbing by top-seeded UMass in the 1996 East regional final. Wright, who broke his left hand Feb. 23 in the second half against Cincinnati, had six points on 3-of-13 shooting and just three assists.
The Big East is considered the best league in the country and sent 11 teams to the tournament. But four are headed home after the second round. Since making the Final Four in 2007, Georgetown has won only one game in the NCAA tournament.
"A lot will be discussed about this group and what they have and haven't done in the postseason," coach John Thompson III said. "Right now, my thoughts are with four seniors who, for the last time, were able to wear a Georgetown jersey. And that hurts."
It is the first time VCU has won more than one game in an NCAA tournament. The Rams upset Duke in the first round in 2007, then lost to Pittsburgh in overtime.
Bilas may have been the most vocal critic, but there were plenty who doubted VCU's worthiness this year. The Rams skidded into the tournament with five losses in their previous eight games, and they're from one of those mid-major conferences that get, at best, begrudging respect.
But these Rams aren't about to back down to anyone - on or off the court. They outmuscled bigger, stronger USC in the "First Four" on Wednesday night, then did the same to the even bigger, even stronger Hoyas. With his team trailing 19-18 with 7:48 left in the first half, Rozzell made a 3-pointer - what else? - to spark a 9-0 run that gave VCU the lead for good.
Any chance Georgetown had of getting back in the game after halftime ended quickly, as Ed Nixon opened with a 3-pointer to start a 14-4 run that put VCU up 49-28 with about 15 minutes to play.
"When we play our brand of basketball, we feel we can compete with any team in the country," Rozzell said. "With all due respect to Georgetown, we just played VCU basketball and it worked out for the best tonight."
Rozzell tied his career high with six 3-pointers and finished with 26 points. Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen added 12 each. VCU finished 12 of 25 from 3-point range.
"They've been doing that all year, making shots," Wright said. "We're not taking nothing away from them, they played better than us and they deserved to win."
Georgetown was a woeful 5 of 26 from long distance, with Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark going a combined 0 for 16 from 3-point range. The Hoyas also had 17 turnovers compared to just six for the Rams.
"We're not going to win too many games when all three of those guys have nights like that," Thompson said. "Unfortunately, it happened tonight."
Hollis Thompson led Georgetown with 26 points.
Backed by a small but rowdy bunch of fans who managed to make it to Chicago on short notice, the VCU players were so loose they were even singing and bopping along to the music on the P.A. system during second-half warmups. Despite not arriving in Chicago until 3 a.m. Thursday, the Rams weren't the least bit fatigued, hustling for loose balls, sprinting on every possession and playing nasty, lock-down defense.
Though their outside shooting carried them - they made just six shots from inside the arc - they weren't afraid to go inside when they had to, either. After Clark and Hollis Thompson made back-to-back 3s to cut VCU's lead to 49-34 with 13:51 left, Rodriguez froze a defender with a crossover stutter-step, then threaded a pass down low to Rozzell, who used the rim to protect his reverse layup from being blocked.
"Coach gives us a lot of freedom, doesn't let us look over our shoulders," Rodriguez said. "When you've got a guy like that, it's easy to come out and perform every time."
Wright is Georgetown's second-leading scorer, and the Hoyas' offense came to a screeching halt without him. They lost their last four games, averaging just 51.5 points.
But as Friday's defeat showed, their problems went well beyond Wright's absence.The Hoyas were off-target and sloppy the whole night. Even their considerable size advantage didn't amount to much, finishing with only six more rebounds than VCU.
"We're really a confident team," Rodriguez said. "We come out here every night expecting to win no matter who we're playing."