ST. LOUIS — Don’t worry about the way the Saint Louis Billikens are playing. While they lost to a ranked team for the second time in the past week on Sunday afternoon, this time 70-65 to No. 12 Wichita State, the Billikens again showed they have the makings of being as strong as last season’s 28-7 team that reached the NCAA Tournament.
As they did in a 63-57 loss to 10th-ranked Wisconsin last Tuesday, the Billikens played plenty of tough defense in front of the matinee crowd of 9,031 at Chaifetz Arena. They forced 18 turnovers and outscored the Shockers 25-8 on points off turnovers while holding the Shockers to 46.2 percent shooting, 39.3 percent in the first half.
Unlike the game against the Badgers, when the Billikens spent much of the second half trying to rally from a 15-point deficit, Saint Louis was up by as many as 10 in the first half and led much of the second half against the Shockers.
Even after Wichita State took the lead for good with 58 seconds remaining, the Billikens had three chances to tie the game but missed on their 3-point attempts. The undefeated Shockers didn’t seal their eighth win until three seconds remained and they made two free throws.
“That was a great basketball game between two very, very tough teams,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “I’m just glad it was a 40-minute game and 43 because their run was coming next.”
“I’m disappointed we lost but I saw a lot of good things from our guys,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said.
While Crews saw plenty he liked, there is a reason to worry about the two losses. Put them down as opportunities missed. Although the season is barely two weeks old, beating a ranked team now can go a long way in helping when NCAA Tournament bids are issued in March.
This is especially true when a team doesn’t play many ranked opponents, and the Billikens are not likely to see another top-25 team until conference play. Their December schedule includes a game at Vanderbilt and a home game against Indiana State and not much else in the way of RIP-building chances.
“We don’t get opportunities like this all the time,” said Mike McCall Jr., who scored 12 but missed one of the three-pointers that could have tied the game in the final minute. “When we get these opportunities, we have to give it our all to finish it out.”
With senior forward Dwayne Evans taking over in the second half, the Billikens built a 58-51 lead with 6:40 left. But then the Shockers went to a zone defense and Evans did not score again. He finished with a team-high 18 points, 15 of them in about a seven-minute stretch of the second half.
“It’s great to have a zone in your pocket,” Marshall said. “We forced them to take mostly perimeter shots that were mostly contested. It helped us win the ballgame.”
The Billikens were in a man defense when Ron Baker scored the go-ahead bucket with 58 seconds remaining. After Baker drove the baseline but found no opening to the rim against the switching Billikens defense, he passed to Fred VanFleet in the corner. When the help defenders returned to guard their own men, Baker was left alone six feet from the basket. VanFleet quickly passed back and, before the Billikens recovered, the 6-3 Baker converted for two of his game-high 22 points.
“We made a mistake there,” Crews said.
As painful as was the mistake on Sunday, it could hurt again when it’s time to seed for the NCAA Tournament.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter (@stanmcneal) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.