And then there were two. Ahead of their matchup in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game this Sunday, players and coaches from VCU and St. Bonaventure talked to the press about what this game meant to them, their tournament aspirations, and how they're finishing the job following a cancelled season last year.
If there was one word that described everyone's overall attitude heading into the final, it was gratitude. Considering how last year's tournament ended on a cliffhanger, fans, players, and coaches alike expressed their excitement to be potentially crowned Atlantic 10 Champions.
In his presser, VCU's Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland, named 2021 A-10 Player of the Year. recalled being on the court last year when the announcement came that the tournament would not be finished.
"We were in New York ready to play and [the game] got called off," Hyland said. "Just knowing that we have the chance to compete for a championship, and that we can actually play, makes it more fun because you know the game won’t be called off."
To limit the possibility of potential exposure to the virus before the final, and then the tournament, both Championship teams have been flown out to Dayton to play, bringing the winner closer to Indianapolis for the start of the tournament. Hyland, who battled a foot injury leading up to and during the tournament, felt like this extended rest period has given his team a solid amount of time to prepare both physically and mentally.
"It’s helped us regenerate and get our bodies right," Hyland said. "With a week off, we can get better, become a tighter team, and just move forward any way possible."
The Rams will need to make their play as tight as possible going against a defense like the Bonnies. In their last meeting, VCU was outscored 45-14 in the second half.
"We’re familiar with them," Hyland said. "We’ve played them twice already this year, so we’re familiar with the team, how the players play."
For the Bonnies, this game holds an added significance aside from playing after the virus. In the 2019 Finals, the Bonnies lost to Saint Louis in Brooklyn, a game in which Osun Osunniyi was a freshman. According to Osunniyi, punching this ticket to the dance on Sunday would mean the completion of a mission started two years ago.
"We need to finish. That’s the one thing we didn’t do my freshman year," Osunniyi said. "The whole entire time leading up to the game, I’ve been seeing stuff on tv and all over about how Saint Louis won last time, so that’s definitely been some extra motivation for me."
Osunniyi's defense is going to be a major factor heading into this final. Named A-10 Defensive Player of the Year as soon as the press conference finished, Osunniyi talked about what his effort on defense means for his team, and how it lead to their Regular Season Championship.
"I’m not really big on personal accolades, but it’d be a blessing and an honor if I was chosen," Osunniyi said. "That’s how I’ve been playing basketball, just playing defense. I think we learned what got us to that point, and over the past two games, we learned that defense is the reason we won the regular season championship, and what’s got us to this final."
Bones Hyland and VCU Coach Mike Rhoades mentioned Osunniyi's defense being a key obstacle in their path to victory. VCU has practiced a guerrilla style of play all season that's looks to disrupt any opponent's game plan. Against such a solid team like the Bonnies, Hyland emphasized that they'll need to get going right from tip off if they're going to have any chance to win.
Prediction: This is going to be the best game we've seen all year in the conference. It's going to be defensive, with both teams using their patented brand of coverage to scrap their way into the NCAA tournament.
Bonnies 67 VCU 63