Billikens get first tourney win since ’98
During his years away from coaching as a television commentator, Rick Majerus figured he’d have the perfect forum to discuss how much fun defense is.
Then he learned otherwise.
He said he was told, ”We’re not going to show some guy in a defensive stance on SportsCenter.”
No problem. His team got to put on a show for a national audience watching the NCAA tournament.
Kwamain Mitchell supplied the offense with 22 points, including three big 3-pointers, and Saint Louis rode its gritty defense to a 61-54 victory over Memphis on Friday night in a West Regional second-round game.
The result was vintage Majerus, the colorful coach who led Utah to the 1998 national championship game. The Tigers wanted to run, Saint Louis wouldn’t let them. A team averaging more than 75 points per game was stymied, saddled and shut down.
”We wanted to make sure we limited their fast-break baskets and make defense a priority,” said Majerus, who has won more than 500 games as a coach at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis.
Mitchell closed the first half by banking in a 3, then nailed two others to help the ninth-seeded Billikens (26-7) overturn an eight-point deficit in the second half. They advanced to play the winner of LIU Brooklyn and top-seeded Michigan State on Sunday.
”I came in with the attitude that we had something to fight for,” Mitchell said. ”Win, or lose and go home.”
Brian Conklin added 16 points, including five free throws in the final minute to salt the game away.
Some observers thought the Billikens were overmatched. Memphis was bigger, stronger, deeper, more athletic and had more NCAA experience. As Majerus had said a day earlier, Saint Louis didn’t have any future pros on its roster.
”It’s fun to come out and prove people wrong,” Conklin said.
Will Barton had 16 points for the eighth-seeded Tigers (26-9), who had won 20 of their last 23 games.
The Billikens, making their seventh appearance in the NCAA tournament but first since 2000, have a team built around defense. They came in having held 10 opponents to 50 or fewer points and three under 40.
So they designed a game plan to try to drop defenders back quickly – ”so they (the Tigers) would see almost a wall back there” – in addition to preventing Barton from being able to drive and Chris Crawford from getting open 3s.
The plan worked to perfection.
”It’s sometimes the bounce of the ball,” Majerus said. ”But our defense was solid throughout. And our guys played hard against a very good team, and I’m very proud of them.”
The Tigers shot just 39 percent from the field and were 2 of 15 from behind the 3-point arc.
”My biggest thing is that the open man is the go-to man,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. ”We kind of went away from that.”
Still, the Tigers led 37-29 with 11:51 left after point guard Joe Jackson scored on a 15-foot jumper.
Fighting and scratching on offense, the Billikens continued to turn the ball over against Memphis’ own tenacious defense, but finally strung together five straight possessions that resulted in points to take command.
With the Billikens trailing 42-40 and 6:24 left, Mitchell took an inbounds pass and swished a 3-pointer from the left corner for the lead. He didn’t even bank that one.
And he still wasn’t done.
After Memphis counterpunched on a bucket by Adonis Thomas, the Billikens tried to be patient in their halfcourt offense. Except that Mitchell ended up trapped with the ball deep in his own backcourt with the shot clock ticking away. He took two dribbles and let fire with an extra-long 3 that found nothing but net.
”The shot clock was coming down, so I had to just get it up,” Mitchell said with a grin.
That bucket with 4:51 left put Saint Louis ahead by four points. It also seemed to shock the Tigers.
Conklin, who hit 10 of 11 free throws, made two to make it 50-44. He hit two more a minute later for an eight-point lead with 3 minutes left for the Billikens, who shot 55 percent from the field in the second half.
The Tigers got as close as five but Conklin hit five free throws down the stretch and Jordair Jett added four more to maintain the lead.
”It’s tough to go out like this when you really beat yourselves,” said Barton, who blamed himself for the loss.
His coach, however, disagreed.
”The only reason we’re able to have those wins is because of the players,” Pastner said. ”So the players deserve the wins. Coaches – all losses go to me.”
Along the same lines, Majerus said he didn’t deserve a whole lot of credit for the game plan. His players begged to differ.
”He holds everyone accountable, from the starting five all the way through the walk-ons,” forward Cody Ellis said. ”That’s huge for everyone. And that definitely gets us over the line in those close games.”