The Saint Louis Billikens did not lead in the final 35 minutes of regulation. They trailed by 16 with 8:13 left. For the night, they missed 14 of their 26 free throws.
And they won.
Yes, their 83-80 overtime victory over North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night was that unlikely. March Madness, indeed.
Who else, but Jett?
Billikens Senior guard Jordair Jett was so limited in the first half that TNT’s announcers wondered if he was injured. Jett missed all three of his shots in the first half and scored all of one point.
But in the late going, you certainly could not tell he was playing with a sore groin. Doing everything but making his free throws (4 for 10), Jett scored 17 points in the second half to lead the Billikens’ comeback. Doing what he does best — driving to his left — Jett tied the game at 70 with 18.8 seconds left when he drove past one NC State player and through two others. He was fouled but, alas, missed the free throw.
In a post-game TV interview, Jett did not deny that his ailing leg was bothering him. But he made it clear injury wasn’t going to stop him. "I’m a warrior," he said. The Wolfpack would not disagree.
When 6-11 senior Rob Loe made three 3-pointers barely three minutes into the game, it looked like it would be his night as well as the Billikens’. But the 9-6 lead he gave SLU would be their last until the overtime, and he would not score again for the rest of the half or the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Then he got busy. With the TV cameras frequently finding his cheering parents visiting from their home in New Zealand, Loe scored 13 points the rest of the way. One basket came on a baseline drive he finished with a roaring two-handed dunk that rarely, if ever, was seen out of the big man from Auckland.
Even more impressive than his scoring was his rebounding. Loe picked a fine time to get his career-high in that department, pulling down 14 on the defensive end to finish with 15. His previous best was 11.
SLU’s comeback was triggered by a strategy that either was implemented by coach Jim Crews or endorsed by him. The plan was simple: Crews called on the Billikens to foul quickly whenever they were unable to generate a turnover out of their full-court press. Their relentless pressure generated its share of turnovers but extending the game by fouling proved to be key.
NC State shot 21 free throws in the final 3:09 — and missed 12. Three times in the final minute the Wolfpack, in the double bonus, missed the second attempt. The Billikens scored after each one.
For the game, NC State out shot SLU from the line, but not by enough. The Wolfpack made 20 of 37, the Billikens 12 of 26. It was the only game this season that SLU failed to make half of its free throws.
Yet they still moved on to the next round of March Madness.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.