Bronx Baller Melvin Johnson: An Important Factor in VCU Reaching the Final of the A-10 Championship Tournament at Barclays

Howard Goldin

VCU (Virginia Commonwealth Union) (26-7), is 23rd ranked in the nation and should, without doubt, be one of those selected to play in the NCAA National Tournament later this month. If the VCU Rams are victorious over the St. Joseph’s Hawks in the final of the Atlantic-10 Championship Tournament on Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center, they will become an automatic qualifier.

One of important contributors is Melvin Johnson, a Bronx native. Johnson played AAU ball with the New York Gauchos in the Bronx. As a high school senior at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, he was ranked among the top 100 recruits by ESPN, Rivals and, especially for his shooting prowess.

Johnson originally signed a letter of intent with the University of Miami, but was able to withdraw it, so that he could sign with VCU in the summer of 2012. Johnson selected jersey #32 in honor of his basketball idol Magic Johnson.

Johnson had an impressive, but not overwhelming freshman season. He played in all but one of VCU’s games in 20012-13. He missed that game due to injury. He came off the bench in all 35 games and averaged 17.3 minutes per game. The freshman averaged 6.9 points per game, but scored in double figures in 12 games. His performances and ability earned him inclusion on the Atlantic-10 All-Rookie Team.

Johnson has become a more integral part of the team this year. He started seven of the team’s 33 contests including the first two of the A-10 Championship Tournament. Johnson’ scoring average has improved to double figures, 10.4 points per game. His minutes played per game have also increased to 22.3. His defense and passing have also improved according to his coach Shaka Smart, “He didn’t play any defense. He didn’t pass the ball. That wasn’t his role. What we’re trying to do is have him get better at all the other things, and he has.”

The A-10 quarter final game on Friday evening was against city rival Richmond, a team VCU twice defeated during conference play. VCU scored the first six points of the contest and never trailed throughout the game. Ten unanswered points as the first half neared its end gave the Rams an 18 point advantage, 33-15 at 3:37. VCU led, 38-22, at the half. The Rams kept the double digit lead throughout the second half, and won the contest by a score of 71-53.

Johnson was one of three Rams with double figure point totals, 13. After the contest, Smart said of the sophomore, “Melvin made some big shots over the course of the game and he’s a big momentum mover for us.”

Johnson was one of the starting five in the semi against George Washington on Saturday afternoon. He scored the first four points for VCU on a three and a free throw. In the fifth minute of the game, Johnson suffered a knee injury in the scramble for a loose ball. He was helped off the court, but never returned to action. He came back to the bench to support his teammates in the second half on crutches and with a brace on his leg.

The game was very competitive in the first half as the score was knotted five times and the lead changed hands six times.

A three by Traveon Graham of the Rams gave VCU a 39-38 advantage at 18:09 in the second half. The Rams kept the lead from that point on and finished the contest with a strong scoring run that resulted in a 74-55 win. VCU outscored GW 21-5 in the final 7:43. The Rams netted the final ten points of the contest.

VCU netted 13 of 23 from the floor in the second half while holding the Colonials to only one of every three shots (7 for 21).  Control of the boards was another second half factor as VCU outrebounded GW (20-11).  Smart praised his players, “I’m proud of how our guys stepped up.”

Although Johnson did not play the last 35 minutes, he was an emotional factor in the win. Coach Smart commented, “When Mel went down, that was a hit for the team. I told the guys we have to win this game for Mel. First, everybody adores him. Second, he’s one of our best players. Mel is a big part of what we do. He’s the best shooter we have.”

Smart spoke with respect of Johnson’s return to the bench to cheer his teammates, “He’s such a team guy. He could have been concerned with himself.”

The very able and caring coach discussed the injury, “There’s some swelling and pain in the knee. We’ll diagnose what his injury is. Hopefully, his injury isn’t too bad. He’ll work his way back to being a great player. He’s got a lot of basketball ahead of him at VCU.”