OKLAHOMA CITY — New coach or not, the same old tournament-tested Virginia Commonwealth showed up for the NCAA Tournament.
The experienced Rams showed why they were the favorites in their first-round game against seventh-seeded Oregon State, despite entering the game as a No. 10 seed.
With JeQuan Lewis totaling 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, VCU (25-10) — led by first-year coach Will Wade — held off a furious second-half charge to defeat the Beavers 75-67 on Friday.
It was the sixth straight NCAA appearance for the Rams, a streak that started with the school’s Final Four run in 2011.
Rather than reveling in their run of postseason success, VCU entered Friday more focused on making amends for first-round losses the last two years. And they certainly played like it in the second half, recovering after a 10-point lead.
“These guys have been through it,” Wade said. “And you’ve got to roll with them, and that’s what we did today.”
Mo Alie-Cox added 20 points and was 7 of 8 from the field in the win, while Melvin Johnson finished with 12 points. It was Lewis, though, who made the biggest impact when the Rams needed it the most — scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and finishing 7 of 11 from the field, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.
The junior helped the team’s seniors stick around for at least one more appearance on the national stage.
“Coming into the game, I told him, ‘I don’t have many of these left,’ and if he could do me a favor, it would be for him to be aggressive,” Johnson said. “And he was extremely aggressive.”
While VCU celebrated its continued run of postseason success, Oregon State was left feeling its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 26 years didn’t last long enough.
Gary Payton II scored 19 points to lead the Beavers (19-13), while Derrick Bruce finished with 15 and Drew Eubanks 13, but they were unable to control VCU’s inside attack and win their first NCAA Tournament game since 1982.
“I’m very happy for our guys’ fight that we showed, but it’s going to stick in our craw for a little bit,” Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said. “We’re competitive; we weren’t happy just making an appearance.”
After leading by eight at halftime, VCU appeared in control as it extended the lead to 47-37 early in the second half — with Ahm Hamdy Mohamed scoring five straight points.
However, the Beavers didn’t go away quietly.
With Bruce connecting on a pair of 3-pointers and Payton II throwing down a pair of dunks and scoring another basket on the fast break, Oregon State went on a 14-2 run to take a 51-49 lead. It was the first time the Beavers had led since a 20-19 edge in the first half.
The charge was short-lived, though, as the Rams regained their composure and stretched the lead to as many as 10 points before holding on for their first tournament win since a first-round victory over Akron in 2013.
“I wish it was longer, but we had a good run,” Payton II said.
VCU: Lewis scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half for the Rams, and he finished 7 of 11 from the field — including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.
Oregon State: The Beavers played without freshman Tres Tinkle, who also missed Oregon’s State’s four previous games with a right foot injury. The 6-foot-8 forward, playing for his father, entered the game averaging 13.1 points per game.