Balanced Billikens roll past Eastern Illinois
ST. LOUIS -- The Saint Louis University Billikens are no doubt a work in progress as the Christmas holiday approaches. And given what they've dealt with the past few months, understandably so.
But with a couple of old friends in the building Wednesday night, they showed that things could be coming together at just the right time.
Nine Billikens scored in the first half and SLU led by as many as 29 points as they cruised to a 72-45 win over coach Jay Spoonhour and Eastern Illinois University at Chaifetz Arena.
Saint Louis (7-3) opened the game with an 18-3 spurt and led 37-20 at halftime before cruising through the glorified practice in the second half.
The Billikens have been forced to deal with the death of coach Rick Majerus and the absence of returning leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell to a broken leg in the early going but are appearing to gain steam as conference play approaches. Wednesday was their season-best fourth straight win.
"They've had a whole heck of a lot go on in their program, a whole bunch of things," said Spoonhour, who served as an assistant coach at SLU from 1996-99. "It's hard enough to lose a really good player and between that and losing coach, it's really hard for a group of guys to play like a unit. It's a hard thing to put all of those pieces together and I think they are getting it.
"I'll tell you, it could make them a very, very good team and a hard out in the tournament if Mitchell can get back in there and blend in. They will have been through a lot. They've been through as much or more than any team in the country."
Junior Mike McCall Jr. had 13 points on 3-for-4 shooting from behind the 3-point line to lead a cast of contributors for the well-rounded Billikens. Nine SLU players had at least six points, including forwards Dwane Evans and John Manning who each had nine.
Cory Remekun and Jake Barnett each had eight, Jordair Jett had seven and Rob Loe, Cody Ellis and freshman Keith Carter poured in six for the Billikens, who are playing without returning leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell as he rehabs from a broken leg.
Mitchell, who suffered the injury during the first week of practice in October, is out of his walking boot and expected to return sometime around Jan. 1. But the Billikens have learned to play without him, using a balanced scoring attack and team game to spread the wealth in his absence.
"I thought our guys really shared the ball well," said SLU coach Jim Crews. "Obviously when you have different guys that can score in different ways, and again I thought we had good ball movement, good player movement, kids were playing unselfish. We don't have a go-to guy. Go-to guys are good to have but we have good balance, which is nice."
The game proved to be the mismatch that most expected with Saint Louis dominating the stat sheet in nearly every category. The Billikens outscored Eastern Illinois 24-14 in the paint and 22-6 off turnovers.
The Billikens had their best offensive game of the season, shooting a season-best 57.5 percent from the field and hitting 9-of-14 from behind the 3-point arc. They made 17-of-23 free throws.
"It's very nice to have 8-10 guys that you can rely on," said Carter, who returned for the first time since suffering an ankle injury in the second game of the season on Nov. 14.
The game marked the return of a pair of former Billikens. Spoonhour, in his first year as the head coach at EIU, was an assistant coach at SLU under his father, legendary coach Charlie Spoonhour. He sported a black turtleneck in honor of his father, who was famous for wearing them during his coaching career.
Also in attendance was former SLU great Larry Hughes, the No. 8 overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. The 13-year NBA veteran was back to receive the Donate Life Champion Award for his work as an advocate for organ and tissue donation through activities with The Larry Hughes Foundation.
The Billikens will continue their season-high nine game home stand when they host Loyola Marymount on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The game will be televised by FOX Sports Midwest.