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Billikens get hard-fought victory over UMass

Jordair Jett and the Billikens earn hard-fought conference victory over UMass at Chaifetz.

By Ben Weixlmann of BillikenReport.com

ST. LOUIS - Scratching and clawing for tough wins is sure to be one of the Atlantic 10 Conference’s main themes this season.  Thursday night’s contest between Saint Louis University and Massachusetts drilled that home as the Billikens battled to a 70-62 win.

Junior forward Rob Loe scored a career-high 20 points as SLU punctuated an extended homestand with a perfect 9-0 record.  For the third time this season, SLU exacted revenge on an opponent from defeat a year ago (along with Loyola Marymount and New Mexico).

“I thought Rob really got us off to a nice start,” interim head coach Jim Crews said.  “Throughout the game, [he] really did a nice job. . .the last couple weeks, his practices have really been stepped up and I really admire him because he didn’t just get instant results.  He’s staying with the process.”

Loe’s boost came at a perfect time as SLU (12-3) did more than just get its feet wet in the new-look Atlantic 10.  A hard-fought game in an upbeat home environment put the first “W” on the board in conference play.  So much so that Crews likened the game to a 15-round boxing bout. 

“It was a good team win,” he said.  “You have to earn it in the A-10.  The A-10 is a really good conference.”

A tough UMass bunch gave the Billikens all they could handle before turnovers and mental lapses haunted them down the stretch.  Starting guard Jesse Morgan went down writhing in pain early in the second half with a right knee sprain, but the Minutemen responded with vengeance.

An off night from junior forward Dwayne Evans didn’t spell doom for SLU as Loe, Jordair Jett, Kwamain Mitchell, and Mike McCall Jr. picked up the slack offensively.  Several careless early plays from Jett were atoned for later in the game as he responded with three huge steals and impressive and-one buckets in key situations.

After surviving a scrappy Savannah State squad, it against faced a pressure-filled defensive team tonight in UMass.

“When they’re in scramble, we should be in recognition,” Jett said.  “We just had to settle down and run our offense.”

Although SLU’s defense was impressive in its own right, as it was successful in neutralizing diminutive star point guard Chaz Williams, who shot just six-for-16 from the field, the Billikens struggled to contain a physical barrage from sophomore forward Cady Lalanne.  The six-foot-nine big man carved out space in the paint over and over to the tune of 18 points and 13 rebounds.

“[Lalanne] was all man tonight,” Crews said.  “He’s a man.  He had a nice game against us.”

Williams struggled to find his rhythm against suffocating defense from Jett and McCall Jr.

“There’s no comparable,” Jett said of Williams.  “He’s real tough to guard.  He’s real quick and he’s actually really strong, too.  You just have to man up and guard him.”

A sluggish start to the ballgame gave way for an entertaining back-and-forth affair.  There were 15 lead changes on the night. 

SLU held a 35-32 advantage at halftime behind 14 points from Loe.  UMass played energized ball in the second frame and clinged to a 54-50 lead with 9:28 left, but a quick 7-0 spurt from the Billikens – capped by Jett’s fastbreak layin – put the home squad on top for good.

A plethora of missed free throws by both teams paved way for a fairly anti-climatic finish as Mitchell pulled the curtains closed with a layup with under 10 seconds to go.

In his fourth game back from a foot injury that sidelined him for the beginning of the season, Mitchell seemed to put things together.

“At times he gets a little anxious because he wants to do so well,” Crews said.  “He’s played within himself pretty well.  He puts a lot of extra work in on his shot, and it looked good tonight.”

Consider tonight’s game a checklist of sorts and the Bills have a green-mark through the box.  With a short turnaround to a difficult road game at Temple on Saturday looming, SLU protected its homecourt, something it will need to do all year.

“Everyone [in the Atlantic 10] is really good,” Loe said.  “We have to bring our best every night.”