DAYTON, Ohio – The individual best performance in the "First Four" came from a guard who insists he's in a shooting slump.
Melvin Johnson III scored a career-high 29 points during Texas-San Antonio's 70-61 win over Alabama State. He outscored the Hornets 25-21 in the first half, hitting one open shot after another while wearing bright orange shoes with "SWISH" scribbled on the sides.
"It seems like the last four or five games, I can't make a shot," Johnson said. "I have 'SWISH' on the side of my shoes because I used to make shots. I might have to black it out for now."
Might as well leave it there for the trip to Cleveland, where the Roadrunners (20-13) will play top-seeded Ohio State on Friday fresh off the first NCAA tournament win in their school's history.
"If it gets any bigger than this, I'm not sure I'll be able to handle it," freshman Jeromie Hill said.
Virginia Commonwealth sure proved it could handle it.
After hearing almost every basketball expert question whether they had any business being in the field of 68, the Rams went out and made their case on the court.
"You guys think Jay Bilas watched that game?" VCU coach Shaka Smart said with a wide grin, referring to the ESPN analyst, after the Rams beat fellow 11-seed Southern California 59-46 in a bruising, physical, foul-plagued nightcap.
Jamie Skeen scored 16 points and VCU more than held its own inside against the bigger and stronger Trojans.
"It feels really good because a lot of people were doubting us," Skeen said. "We were able to come out and prove some people wrong. Instead of just talking about it, we just came out here and played."
The Rams (24-11) pulled 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, but was one of many standouts for the Rams.
Even though the Trojans started two 6-foot-10 wide bodies inside, the Rams held a 40-31 edge in rebounding.
"We really followed the game plan in terms of what we were trying to do to stop USC," said Smart, the second-youngest coach in the NCAA field at 33. "They obviously have a lot of weapons. Our guys did a really good job for 40 minutes on the defensive end. This is as good as we've played defensively. Early on offensively we were a little jittery. But our guys really settled down and we made more than enough shots as the game wore on."
Jio Fontan had 14 points and Nikola Vucevic 11 for USC (19-15), which had just one field goal over the final 9 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, building an eight-point lead
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 did not give up the lead.
USC pulled as close as 44-43, but then VCU pulled away again.
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 Bradford Burgess and a shot off glass in traffic by Rodriguez for a 51-43 lead.
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.
UTSA's brightest star for one night, Johnson won't get nearly so many open shots against the Buckeyes, who will be playing only two hours from campus in an arena packed with their fans. The 16th-seeded Roadrunners will be trying to pull off an unprecedented upset of a No. 1 seed.
The Roadrunners left town with a little history already in the books. No Texas-San Antonio team had ever won an NCAA tournament game in any sport.
"We're very proud to be in this moment," coach Brooks Thompson said.
Might as well let Johnson decide where to put the banner in their 4,080-seat UTSA Convocation Center. The sophomore's scintillating first half set it all up.
The 6-foot-5 guard went 8 of 14 from the field in the first half, making every type of shot. His eight baskets were only one fewer than all the Hornets combined, setting up a 48-21 lead. He took only four shots in the second half.
"Johnson got good look after good look, and he also made some tough shots," Hornets coach Lewis Jackson said. "He got on a roll and it trickled down to everybody else."
It'll take something sensational — and more — to keep the Roadrunners in the game in Cleveland.
"No. 31, if he's on like he was tonight, it should be a pretty good game," Alabama State guard Jeff Middlebrooks said.
Johnson knows what they're up against.
"We're going to fight just like we always do," he said. "I'm not going to guarantee a victory or say anything like that."
Spoken like a man in a shooting slump.