ST. LOUIS — When VCU forward Juvonte Reddic headed to the bench for a rest in the second half Saturday afternoon, his coach stopped him, pulled him close and looked in his eyes.
The "he" in reference was the Saint Louis Billikens’ leading scorer, Dwayne Evans, and "that ball" in question said all you need to know about their 64-62 victory played in front of a raucous and record crowd of 10,639 at Chaifetz Arena.
Evans had just missed a shot under the basket that Reddic was in ideal position to corral. A 6-9 senior with bazooka arms, Reddic grabbed the rebound but before he gained enough control to pass to a guard, Evans simply grabbed back the ball and put it in the basket.
It was a classic example of a player refusing to be denied.
Evans and the 12th-ranked Billikens know all about not being denied these days. They haven’t been denied victory since Dec. 1.
Their 17th straight win improved SLU to 10-0 in the Atlantic 10 and gave them a three-game lead in the loss column with six games remaining. As Smart admitted, SLU is in the "driver’s seat" to win its second straight conference title.
With five senior starters, the Billikens are not so much kids as men. This was a game when these men stepped up collectively bigger than they have all season. Against VCU’s havoc pressure, they needed to. SLU’s seniors all played at least 33 minutes — no undergrad played more than 14 — and scored all but two of the team’s points.
No one stepped up more than Evans, who scored a game-high 21 points and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds. It was the first time in six games that Evans, the Billikens’ leading scorer on the season, topped his team in points. And he did so playing part of the game with what he would call a "tweaked butt."
Evans not only played big inside but he also was called on to help beat VCU’s full-court press. SLU had its problems adjusting to the pressure in the first half when their 12 turnovers resulted in 10 points for VCU.
But with their coaches stressing "to be strong with the ball," the Billikens settled down and committed only one turnover in the first 12 minutes of the second half. Not coincidentally, this is when they took control of the game by building a 12-point lead.
Evans scored 10 points in the run, including one on an impressive driving dunk in their half-court offense, one of two such slams he had in the game.
Evans, however, also had a hand in helping VCU get back in the game by making a couple of turnovers in the final minutes, including one when, taking the ball out under his own basket, he passed right to Rams guard Briante Weber for an uncontested layup that closed SLU’s lead to 53-50.
You’d think we’d be sky high after a win like this but come Monday, it’s back to business. I mean that sincerely. Wednesday is going to be just as big of a game as this one.
-- Dwayne Evans
"It wasn’t a good feeling," Evans said sheepishly. "I was not trying to just give them a layup."
"Miscommunication," said Jordair Jett, the intended receiver.
Evans also had a couple of bad passes in the first half that resulted in turnovers, including one that led to a VCU score. Both times he was taking the ball out after a SLU score and threw the ball out of bounds.
"You never want to turn the ball over but that’s what they thrive on. That’s going to happen," Evans said. "Hopefully next time, I’ll have teammates who want to catch the ball and stuff."
He was joking about that, and who can blame him? You should enjoy this kind of roll, perhaps even more than the businesslike Billikens often appear to. The seniors showed some emotion on the court in the closing minute, as Evans and Rob Loe chest-bumped with big smiles following a Loe 3-pointer that put SLU up by seven with 37 seconds left.
"That was the one right there," said Smart, who told Loe the same thing in the post-game handshake line.
Once the Billikens retreated to their locker room, though, they were as cool as ever.