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VCU steps it up after Melvin Johnson leaves with injury

VCU's Briante Weber, left, shoots while George Washington's

VCU's Briante Weber, left, shoots while George Washington's Patricio Garino defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament at the Barclays Center in New York, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

The hit came hard and early for VCU in an Atlantic 10 semifinal matchup against George Washington on Saturday at Barclays Center.

Sophomore guard Melvin Johnson, the A-10's sixth man of the year and the Rams' third-leading scorer, had to be helped off the court after suffering a left leg injury just 5:29 into the contest and his team trailing by three points.

Losing the Bronx native so early was a big blow, but the No. 2 Rams regrouped, using a strong second half for a 74-55 win over the third-seeded Colonials.

VCU will face No. 4 St. Joseph's, a 67-48 winner over ninth-seeded St. Bonaventure in the earlier semifinal, in the conference final Sunday at 1 p.m.

"When Mel went down, that was a hit to our team, to our guys, to our coaching staff," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "First of all, he's one of the guys everyone on the team absolutely adores, including the coaches. And second, he's a very, very good player. At that point, you've just got to keep playing. I told the guys let's win this game for Mel."

Johnson, who entered the game averaging 10.6 points, is also VCU's best three-point shooter.

But the Rams (26-7) found a spark in Johnson's absence as junior guard Treveon Graham torched George Washington (24-8) with 22 points and 8-for-11 shooting.

Junior point guard Briante Weber also found his game, adding 16 points and eight assists.

Johnson's status for Sunday's game hasn't been determined.

"When Melvin went out with the injury, it really hit us, because he's a great player, a player that we look for," Graham said. "We wanted to really bounce back and get this one for him and that's what we did."

Weber agreed.

"We just played for him and the seniors, knowing any game could be our last game," he said. "So we just put our heads down. And when we attack, there's nothing we can do wrong."

Ahead 50-47 with 8:54 left in the game, VCU's Rob Brandenberg hit a three, igniting a 14-6 run that gave the Rams a 64-53 lead at the 4:19 mark. From that point, it was all about VCU's pressure defense as the Colonials managed just two free throws the rest of the way.

"I thought [Graham and Weber] and their teammates did a great job staying together, continuing to attack," Smart said. "In the last six, eight minutes, we were able to extend the lead with our defense."

Isaiah Armwood had 15 points and Nemanja Mikic 12 points for the Colonials.

The win made Smart VCU's winningest coach with 137 victories, surpassing Sonny Smith (1989-98). It's not an achievement the coach said he was paying much attention to.

"I don't take much stock in records," Smart said. "You don't win the games by yourself."

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