SLU put a beating on No. 9 Butler Thursday night that could be huge in the Atlantic 10 race.
By B.J. RAINSFS Midwest
ST. LOUIS — Butler coach Brad Stevens watched from the sideline as the lead continued to grow, the crowd continued to get louder and the game continued to get more and more out of hand.
But for a change, the ninth-ranked Bulldogs were on the wrong end of this laugher.
Using a swarming pressure defense that forced 23 turnovers and completely took the visitors out of their comfort zone, the Saint Louis Billikens picked up the signature win that their NCAA résumé badly needed with a dominant 75-58 win over Butler on Thursday night.
The crowd stormed the court as the buzzer sounded on the Billikens' biggest win ever over a ranked team at Chaifetz Arena. And Stevens was left to sing their praises afterwards.
"They were great the whole night, every one of them," Stevens said of SLU. "They were great. They made the right passes. They made the extra pass. I absolutely loved the way they moved the ball. It was an absolute joy to watch one team play. The problem was it wasn't the team I was coaching.
"I think it was really obvious. They had their way with us. They were clearly the best team. They absolutely deserved to win. They are a really good basketball team."
Just 12 days earlier, Butler beat No. 8 Gonzaga on a last-second shot at the same time the Billikens lost an overtime game to lowly Rhode Island, which still has just one A-10 win. But things couldn't have been more different Thursday.
It was Saint Louis and not Butler that looked like the top-10 team, forcing 16 first-half turnovers and using a stunning 26-4 run to go up 31-14 late in the half. At one point Butler went 12 possessions without a basket.
SLU stretched the lead to 20 in the second half as the record-setting sellout crowd, all in decked out in white T-shirts for a Billiken Blizzard promotion, only got louder and louder.
Sure, SLU finished as a three-point favorite in Las Vegas. But who expected the Billikens, losers to Rhode Island and Santa Clara at home, to dominate the ninth-ranked team in the country from start to finish?
As a result, Saint Louis sits just a half-game out of first place in the Atlantic 10.
"It's a great feeling," said forward Rob Loe, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds. "We're happy and emotional. We came into this game ready but we've got to be ready for Dayton on Saturday.
"We heard before the game that Butler really hadn't been pressured much and we wanted to get them out of their comfort zone."
Jordair Jett led the Billikens with 19 points and Dwayne Evans added 15 points and five rebounds. It was the kind of balanced scoring attack and dominating defensive effort that was expected when some labeled them the favorites to win the league before the season started.
They looked every bit like league champions Thursday night. Butler entered with wins over three ranked teams including a top-ranked and undefeated Indiana squad, but you would have had a tough time believing that as the night unfolded.
SLU forced Butler into 16 turnovers in the first 16 minutes. Bulldogs star Rotnei Clarke finished with a career-worst six turnovers. The Billikens had 14 steals and turned them into a 19-2 edge in fast-break points.
"They played great defense," Stevens said. "They were very active. They were on to the next play on almost every pass. They were terrific. ...
"This was going to be a really hard place to win if we played well and we knew that. The disappointing thing is they made us not play well. … Certainly it's hard to win on the road in any league and certainly against one of the teams that is one of the more accomplished, more experienced teams in the league."
But despite orchestrating one of the biggest wins in SLU history, Billikens coach Jim Crews wasn't quite ready to give it the extra significance.
Crews has preached all season about each conference game being just 1/16th of a championship. And a loss or win, no matter how big, is worth just 1/16th of the final goal. And he reminded the media of that again Thursday.
"We beat a very good team," Crews said. "It's a big win, but as I said going into the week, if you win, it's a big win and if you lose, you're disappointed but it's not the everything. It's one game in the league. Everyone gets excited because it's Butler and rightfully so, but it's one game and only one game. We got another one Saturday.
"It gives us 1/16th of a championship. I mean seriously, that's all. It's one game. It's not the everything. It's one game. It's an important game, yeah, but last week's game was important. Our Rhode Island game was important and we didn't win that game. They are all 1/16th."
But never before has SLU beaten a ranked team by the margin it did Thursday, and never before has the crowd rushed the floor at Chaifetz Arena. With four winnable games on their schedule leading up to a Feb. 19 matchup with VCU, the Billikens (15-5, 4-2) appear to be on the verge of making a run.
Instead of falling two games behind Butler in the A-10, where seven teams are now tied with two losses, SLU is right in the hunt.
Pressed further, the SLU coach finally gave in to what had happened. A little.
"It gets you closer to what you want to do," Crews said. "We're trying to win a championship. Unfortunately there are a lot of other teams trying too, but that's what we're trying to do. It's one step closer and obviously Butler is one of those teams that (could win the league), so certainly from that standpoint, it's real nice.
"It was a great win. But tomorrow the sun will come up and the snow will snow and we have to watch film and get ready for practice."
Crews and the Billikens may not be putting much stock in the magnitude of Thursday's win. But they should. And the rest of college basketball should too. SLU made a statement. The Billikens are contenders.