ST. LOUIS — This wasn’t what anyone was expecting.
Saint Louis University entered its season opener against visiting Southeast Missouri on Friday night as a 24 1/2-point favorite, but trailed by one point at halftime against the undersized and undermanned Redhawks.
Many in the crowd of 7,714 at Chaifetz Arena couldn’t believe what they were witnessing — following a season in which the Billikens won 28 games and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament — but junior forward Grandy Glaze offered a unique take on the vibe at halftime.
“We liked it,” he said. “We like to be challenged. It was good that they challenged us. We kind of played outside of our philosophy but we liked the challenge and we were able to rise to the occasion.”
Glaze was asked to clarify his statement, but senior forward Dwayne Evans answered before his teammate could.
“I didn’t like it that much,” said Evans, the Billikens’ leading returning scorer and rebounder said.
It was Evans and fellow seniors Jordair Jett, Rob Loe and Mike McCall Jr. that sparked Saint Louis U. early in the second half and led the host Billikens to an 87-64 victory.
“We started playing defense,” Evans said. “That was probably the biggest difference. First half we really let them get the ball wherever they wanted. We didn’t deny. We didn’t do a lot of things we do every day in practice. We got out of character. Second half we regrouped and it worked pretty well.”
SLU’s senior class responded to the challenge.
Jett, Evans and McCall accounted for 23 of the Billikens’ 25 points during a 25-5 run over nine minutes that essentially secured the season-opening victory.
“They’ve invested the most,” SLU coach Jim Crews said of his seniors. “They’ve had the most practices, the most games. They have the most knowledge. Our guys do a good job of passing that knowledge to the younger guys and not only passing the knowledge but passing what they see. … They’ve done a good job with that. They’ve done a real good job with that and we’ve had three years of good older guys doing that.”
After trailing 35-34 at halftime, the Billikens outscored SEMO 53-29 over the final 20 minutes. The hosts held a 20-11 edge on the boards in the second half and shot 65.6 percent after halftime after shooting 40 percent in the first half.
Glaze finished with a career-high 16 points and added 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. Evans scored nine of his 16 points in the second half. Jett had 15 points and Loe added 13. McCall finished with eight points and a game-high five assists.
Southeast Missouri, which was led by 22 points and 12 rebounds from junior swingman Jarekious Bradley, was selected to be one of the co-favorites, along with Murray State, in the Ohio Valley Conference’s West Division this season.
But the Redhawks squad that took the floor on Friday night was without OVC preseason player of the Tyler Stone was the year and preseason all-conference team Nino Johnson, a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards who were suspended for the first two games of the season due to a violation of team rules.
SEMO also had player dismissed from the team in October for violation of team rules and announced on Friday that a senior guard who would have been the third-leading returning scorer had withdrawn from school.
So the Redhawks on Friday night played with a lineup that included no one taller than 6-5, which SLU was able to take advantage of at times, but also caused the Billikens matchup problems on the defensive end.
“It was kind of obviously an interesting game,” Crews said. “First of all, (SEMO) did a great job. They had kids come in here and really played extremely hard. They were very smart. Coach (Dickey) Nutt really had them set up well because they inverted so many things against us. … They did that because they had five guards, so that made some difficult matchups for us.”
It remains to be seen whether or not the struggles SLU experienced in the first half of its season opener were a blip or a sign of things to come. But on this night, the Billikens were up to the challenge.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.