RICHMOND, Va. — Marcus Santos-Silva joked that he has a habit of stealing rebounds from teammates.
His guys weren’t the only victims on Tuesday night as he had 21 points and 18 rebounds for No. 25 VCU, which used a big early run to take command in a 72-58 victory over St. Francis in the season opener for both teams.
The Rams are not the biggest team, and Santos-Silva is just 6-foot-7, but the junior said size might be overrated.
“We just play with heart. We feel like we can beat anyone,” he said. “Height and stuff don’t matter to us. If we just go out there and play how we play, we can compete with anyone in the country.”
Coach Mike Rhoades said his big man’s secret is simple.
“You know how he rebounds everything? He goes after everything, and that’s his mentality. That’s huge,” Rhoades said.
The Rams looked sharp from the start, using a 23-5 spree to open a 25-9 lead with just over eight minutes left in the first half. Six players scored in the run, while the Red Flash missed 12 of 14 shots and turned the ball over six times.
“Against a team like that, at home, talented, the style they play, you can’t dig yourself that kind of a hole,” St. Francis coach Rob Krimmel said. His team finished with 19 turnovers against the Rams’ pressing, trapping defense, leading to 20 points for VCU.
Rhoades found plenty for the Rams to work on.
“We had some good stretches throughout the game but not enough long stretches,” he said. The coach also could have done without a few attempts at highlight reel alley-oop plays and other plays he described as “cute.”
“We got the jitters out. We got the first game out of the way,” Rhoades said.
The Red Flash, regular-season co-champions in the Northeast Conference last season, trailed by as many as 21 in the second half, but rallied to within 55-45 with 7:23 to play. But Marcus Evans scored the Rams’ next six points in an 8-2 run that pushed the lead back up to 16.
De’Riante Jenkins added 16 points and Evans scored 12 for the Rams.
Isaiah Blackmon scored 15 and Keith Braxton had 11 for the Red Flash. They finished 21 of 65 from the field, just 24.2%, with 19 turnovers.
St. Francis: The Red Flash rely heavily on the tandem of Braxton, the reigning NEC player of the year, and Blackmon, but both struggled in the opener. They were both 2 for 9 from the field in the opening half as VCU opened its big lead. Neither ever found his stroke with Braxton finishing 4 for 15 and Blackmon 5 for 14.
“We wanted to make sure we wore Braxton down the whole time,” Rhoades said. Braxton played just over 35 minutes.
VCU: The Rams emphasized defense last season and were among the national leaders in several categories. They appear to have picked up where they left off. They forced eight first-half turnovers and limited the Red Flash to 23.5% shooting (8 for 33) and just one 3-pointer in 10 attempts in a dominant first half. Trying to come back, the Red Flash finished 6 for 21 from beyond the 3-point arc.