PISHCHALNIKOV, RAMS MUSCLE UP, TAKE OLD DOMINION BY FORCE
By Chris Kowalczyk
It was supposed to be a matchup that pitted contrasting styles, VCU’s up-tempo attack against Old Dominion’s bruising, physical defense. But instead of trying to push the Monarchs into hyperdrive, the Rams muscled up and beat first-place ODU at its own game, with defense and toughness in a 70-58 victory.
Old Dominion entered the game with a plus 8.8 rebounding margin, which ranked fifth nationally. That didn’t stop the Rams from out-boarding the Monarchs, 39-37. It’s the first time a team has won the rebounding battle against ODU since George Mason on Jan. 2 - a span of 10 games - and just the third time all year.
The Monarchs give up 55.0 points a night on average, but it was VCU that shined on the defensive end Saturday. Old Dominion shot 41 percent (22-of-54) from the field in the game, including 33 percent in the second half. In the paint, VCU outscored Old Dominion, 40-24.
In essence, VCU out-ODUed ODU.
At the heart of the Rams’ defensive revelation was senior Kirill Pishchalnikov, who started for reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year Larry Sanders and provided a season-high 14 points and grabbed five rebounds in 21 intense minutes.
“Kirill’s a real hard worker,” Said Sanders, who did not start for undisclosed reasons. “He works hard in practice, gets extra shots up, extra free throws. I knew he’d be ready. I think we all have an unbelievable amount of faith in him. I have so much faith in him and he went out and proved me right.”
There’s very little finesse in the 6-foot-8, 265-pound Russian’s game. He’s exponentially more likely to deliver a forearm shiver than a 3-point jumper. Pishchalnikov is a classic banger and was perfectly suited for Saturday’s slugfest.
“I felt very good going into the game about what Kirill would be able to do. I didn’t know he would get 14 points and go 4-for-4 from the line. He seemingly made every big shot that he took,” Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart said. “But Kirill’s played big minutes in these types of games before, and with the physicality of ODU, Kirill’s our biggest, strongest guy in terms of girth. I thought that would be a good matchup for us and he didn’t disappoint, he was phenomenal.”
Pishchalnikov, who started 30 of 34 games last year, has struggled to find a role in VCU’s “Wreak Havoc” style of play. He’s at odds with the quick, athletic player that typically excels in this type of system. During the first half of the season, he didn’t see the floor often. However, as the year moved forward, Smart found that Pishchalnikov can be a nice compliment to VCU’s normal, flashy style.
“I’m just really proud of him because he’s had times this year where he’s barely gotten off the bench and he’s maintained a good attitude,” Smart said. “He’s maintained a good level of appreciation for being a member of this team and everything that that represents. That’s allowed him to come back and have a game like this.”
Sanders entered the game at the 14:35 mark and added his eighth double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Before the game, Sanders asked Smart to let him guard All-CAA forward Gerald Lee, who came into the game averaging 14.0 points and 5.3 rebounds. The result was one of Sanders’ finest defensive efforts of the year and just nine points and four boards for Lee.
“I’d say this game and William & Mary are the best we’ve defended for 40 minutes,” Smart said. “For a 40-minute effort, this was phenomenal. I told our guys in the locker room [at halftime] when it was 33-31, Old Dominion can’t get 30 in the second half, and they got 25. I think our guys more than did their job.“
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