Joey Rodriguez scored 14 straight points during a decisive second-half surge to lead Virginia Commonwealth past Saint Louis 68-56 on Monday night in the first game of the championship series of the College Basketball Invitational.
``Joey can get it going,'' said Ram coach Shaka Smart. ``The thing that makes him dangerous - he led the CAA in assists. He's a rhythm shooter and came off ball screens into the lane.''
Saint Louis rallied to cut the deficit to 3 points with 14:30 left, but Rodriguez took over during a 14-4 run that gave the Rams a 55-42 lead with 11:55 to go. Rodriguez hit three 3-pointers during the burst, including one that turned into a four-point play.
``They got the game to three (points),'' said Rodriguez, ``and I tried to make plays for my team.''
Rodriguez finished with a game-high 22 points and six assists, and Larry Sanders added 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks for the Rams (26-9), who led by as many as 20.
``We didn't match their intensity level,'' Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus said. ``We got stretched out (on defense). We're not used to rotational changing.''
Willie Reed scored 11 points, and Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis added 10 apiece for the Billikins (23-12).
The teams will play Game 2 of the best-of-three series in St. Louis on Wednesday.
Sanders and Brandon Rozzell each had four points during a 13-4 run over the final 4:02 of the first half to give the Rams a 36-25 lead at halftime.
``The coaches told me to go out and be aggressive,'' said Sanders. ``I think (my play) has a huge effect on the game and my teammates. I've never finished the season with a win.''
Smart was happy with his team's play.
``Most of the game, we were able to get the tempo at our pace,'' he said. ``We got our hands on a lot of basketballs tonight.''
Sanders scored 14 points in the first half.
``Larry was really good tonight,'' Smart said. ``He set the tone for the game.''
The Billikins were ahead 13-12 with 7:55 left in the half before the Rams hit 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions for a 21-15 lead.