Dayton, Ohio — It might not have looked pretty to others. It was a masterpiece for Virginia Commonwealth.
Jamie Skeen scored 16 points and VCU more than held its own inside against bigger and stronger Southern California to beat the Trojans 59-46 on Wednesday night in the finale of the NCAA's inaugural "First Four" tournament games at the University of Dayton Arena.
The 11th-seeded teams traded elbows and punishing defense all night, with the Rams (24-11) pulling away down the stretch to set up a game against sixth-seeded Georgetown (21-10) on Friday in Chicago.
Joey Rodriguez had eight points and five assists for VCU.
Jio Fontan had 14 points and Nikola Vucevic 11 for USC (19-15), which had just one field goal over the final 9 minutes.
Even though the Trojans started two 6-foot-10 wide-bodies inside, the Rams held a 40-31 edge in rebounding.
Vucevic, a first-team All-Pac-10 performer, had 14 rebounds and Alex Stepheson added 10. But the Rams had six players with at least three, led by Bradford Burgess' 10.
Maligned by some as unworthy of the NCAA field, the Rams played tight defense, survived the deep foul trouble that plagued both teams and hit big shots in the final minutes.
After trailing by as many as five points in the first half, the Rams broke free in the second half with their 3-point shooting.
Skeen hit a 3 to open the second-half scoring and Rodriguez — scoreless to that point — hit two 3s for a 28-24 lead. After Maurice Jones countered by hitting USC's first 3 of the game, VCU's Brandon Rozzell hit another shot behind the arc on the left wing to push the lead to 34-27 at the 14:25 mark.
The Rams would never give up the lead.
USC scrapped back after an intentional foul on a breakaway led to a free throw by Donte Smith. Fontan's free throw on the ensuing possession cut the Trojans' deficit to 44-43.
Then, with the shot clock running down, Rodriguez passed up a shot and flipped the ball to Ed Nixon, who hit the 3 from the left wing — his only field goal of the game. The Rams then added two foul shots by Burgess and a shot off glass in traffic by Rodriguez for a 51-43 lead.
The Trojans hurt themselves at the line in such a foul-plagued game, hitting just 15 of 25 free throws. They missed three of four over the next minute while Juvonte Reddic was scoring inside to make it 53-44.
Fontan, the linchpin of the USC offense, then fouled out on a drive with 3:54 left, crippling the Trojans' attack.
The Rams padded their lead the rest of the way.
The evening didn't start as well as it ended.
The Trojans were able to build a 13-8 lead by the 8:54 mark as the teams traded missed shots and body blocks in the paint. That pace seemed to fit a team built around a bruising, physical frontcourt with three quick guards.
After being held to just eight points in almost 12 minutes, the Rams scored seven points in 41 seconds. Burgess scored on a reverse layup inside and, after a USC miss, Skeen hit a 3. Reserve Rob Brandenberg, limited by a thigh contusion the last three games, then stole the inbounds pass and followed his own miss for a 15-13 VCU lead.
USC, which had won six of its last eight, was making its 16th NCAA appearance and sixth trip in the last 11 years.
Coach Kevin O'Neill had been suspended for the Trojans' last game, a 67-62 loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament. O'Neill and his wife had gotten into a verbal confrontation with an Arizona booster at the team's hotel on Thursday night. USC athletic director Pat Haden suspended O'Neill and promised additional penalties.
But O'Neill was reinstated by Haden and the coach apologized to his team before the flight to Ohio. He then offered a public apology during the NCAA's mandated media interviews Tuesday.
The Rams, who received their first at-large bid since 1983-84, are making their 10th trip to the big tournament and have a 6-9 all-time record.