ST. LOUIS — All of that senior experience paid off at the finish for Saint Louis. After frittering away a 12-point lead in a matchup of the Atlantic 10’s top two teams, no one panicked.
"When it comes down to it, the last two minutes, we really look at each other and say ‘Let’s get it done,’" Dwayne Evans said after the 12th-ranked Billikens (23-2, 10-0 Atlantic 10) held off VCU 64-62 for their 17th straight victory on Saturday. "They’re a good team, so we knew they’d make a run."
The five senior starters played at least 33 minutes and combined for all but three points. Coach Jim Crews thought fatigue might have been a factor in VCU’s comeback, but was impressed with the composure.
This was the fourth win decided by two or fewer points during the streak. A fifth was decided in overtime. This one gave Saint Louis a commanding lead in the A-10.
"We’ve had some opportunities to kind of not respond if you choose to," Crews said. "That’s been a great character trait, they do respond."
Evans had 21 points and 10 rebounds and Saint Louis broke a late tie with seven straight points to beat VCU for a third straight time. Jordair Jett had 14 points, five assists and six rebounds and Rob Loe also had 14 points with a key 3-pointer.
"I think we’re good, but we’ve got a lot of room for improvement," guard Jordair Jett said. "So we’re going to take it day by day."
Mike McCall Jr. and Jett drove for layups and Rob Loe hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down for a seven-point lead with 36 seconds to go. VCU cut the deficit to three before Loe hit the second of two free throws for a four-point gap with 8 seconds left.
"I told them when we were shaking hands, that was the shot," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "It was a big shot. I think Saint Louis deserves all the credit for protecting their home floor."
Treveon Graham had 16 points and eight rebounds for VCU (20-6, 8-3), which had won seven of eight. Juvonte Reddic had 13 points and Briante Weber had 12 points and nine rebounds.
VCU was 2 for 16 from 3-point range, a glaring statistic in a tight game. The Rams entered shooting 37 percent from long range.
"If we shoot our normal percentage, we’re in pretty darned good position," Smart said. "Man, we’ll take a lot of those open 3 looks that we got. We just didn’t make shots."
Evans had eight points and Jett scored five in an 18-4 run that gave Saint Louis its largest lead at 49-37 near the midway point of the second half. Evans ripped the rebound out of a VCU player’s hands before converting his own miss and had a driving dunk during the stretch.
VCU scored the next seven points to get back into it and Graham’s three-point play tied it 53-53 with 2:17 to go. Saint Louis helped VCU rally by making 2 of 8 free throws and twice missing the front end of the bonus after taking the 12-point lead.
"It was certainly kind of a 15-rounder," Crews said. "They didn’t let down when things didn’t go our way. Nothing’s easy."
The matchup attracted the largest crowd at 6-year-old Chaifetz Arena of 10,639, also Saint Louis’ first sellout of the season.
Saint Louis was bothered by VCU pressure early and had eight turnovers the first nine minutes, totaling 12 in the half. Saint Louis had five turnovers the second half.
Both teams’ top threats had slow starts. Graham made 1 of 6 in the first half and got on the scoreboard with two free throws with 5:12 to go, and Jett was 0 for 3 with two turnovers before getting rolling with five points the final 2:33 of the half to help Saint Louis take a 30-27 lead.
Jett had the hot hand early in the second half, too, totaling his first 11 points in just over six minutes.