Conklin leads Billikens back off the bubble

ST. LOUIS – Brian Conklin cradled the ball near the top of the key, time ticking toward a Saint Louis victory that made the Billikens’ NCAA Tournament dream more real. Behind him, students began chanting, “Let’s go dancing! Let’s go dancing!” Conklin, the heart of Saint Louis’ run this season, savored the final seconds of his last game at Chaifetz Arena by creating a memory.

Time expired, and goodbyes began. There was a hug from senior guard Kyle Cassity. There were chest bumps from others. The senior forward made a slow walk toward the end of the Billikens’ bench, noise from 10,441 fans wearing white continuing to roar. Conklin began to cry.

“It was a special moment, definitely,” he said later. “You see it when you’re younger – you go to college games and you watch it. You don’t think about it until it’s your time. That’s when the tears came. I knew it was my time. It was special.”

Tuesday’s game was memorable for Conklin, his teammates and the eager fans who watched Saint Louis beat Xavier 70-59 in a matchup between two of the Atlantic 10 Conference’s top three teams. Led by Conklin’s game-high 23 points, the Billikens erased a 10-point halftime deficit with a second-half surge that saw them outscore the Musketeers 41-20. In the process, Saint Louis all but secured its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000.

But beyond knowing Saint Louis’ season will probably continue on the sport’s largest stage next month, Conklin’s presence Tuesday was a reminder of what is being built under coach Rick Majerus in his fifth season at the school. The Eugene, Ore., native plays with poise and passion. He plays with instinct and control. And he plays with strength and confidence, so much so that he left the locker room at halftime without worry, because, as he explained afterward, “I definitely wasn’t going to go out with a loss.”

No, he went out a winner, and the Billikens most likely avoided an uncertain NCAA Tournament fate because of it. Conklin’s play erased a sour memory: Entering Tuesday, Saint Louis was looking to recover after a stunning defeat last Saturday to Rhode Island, which is tied with Fordham for last place in the A-10.

Xavier promised to provide a more difficult challenge. The Musketeers entered tied with St. Bonaventure for third place in the league and needing a victory to keep their hopes alive to earn an at-large bid and extend their streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament berths. However, they had failed to win two straight games since beating Charlotte on Jan. 28 and George Washington on Feb. 1, and coach Chris Mack’s team understood it had little room for error.   

On Tuesday, Xavier played with a sense of urgency early. For the most part, Conklin was contained in the first half – a stretch that saw the Musketeers make 14 of 27 shots on their way to building a 39-29 halftime lead. Meanwhile, Conklin was held to 2-of-6 shooting for eight points before the break.

“I wasn’t worried,” Conklin said, “because I knew we weren’t going to lose this one.”

Minutes passed, and Conklin’s belief became his team’s goal in the most important half of Saint Louis’ season. Chaifetz Arena came alive as the Billikens started the second half on a 24-3 run. During the stretch, he became a visible symbol of Saint Louis’ resurgence: He yelled at teammates, pounded his chest after swishing jumpshots and clapped his hands while directing the Billikens on defense.  

Meanwhile, as Conklin led Saint Louis’ comeback, Xavier faded. The Musketeers rushed shots. They became frustrated. On one occasion late in the second half, Mack turned his head from the court in disgust after Andre Walker fouled Saint Louis forward Cody Ellis in the act of shooting. All the while, Conklin continued to lead.

“Brian acquired great strength,” Majerus said. “Brian’s a manufactured player. You know who manufactured him? He did.”

And Conklin’s self-made approach has earned his coach’s respect. Majerus knows Saint Louis would not be in position to create its most memorable season under his leadership without Conklin. The coach is clear about Conklin’s weaknesses – he does not have a large wingspan or a sound shooting technique, Majerus said – but the player has become the face of his team and success has followed.

Those results over the past four months have secured Conklin’s legacy at Saint Louis, no matter what the Billikens accomplish in March. He is an example for Majerus off the court as well as on it – Conklin was named a second-team Academic All-American last Thursday. And Tuesday night, Majerus fought back tears as he told a large gathering of media and boosters in a small room, “You have no idea how hard it is to be an Academic All-American.”

“He’s just a great class kid,” said Dr. Richard Chaifetz, the Saint Louis alumnus who donated $12 million toward the arena that carries his name. “Everything he has done epitomizes what I think an athlete at Saint Louis U. is all about.”

Others think so too. Less than an hour after Conklin walked off the court at Chaifetz Arena for a final time, he entered a lounge in the bowels of the building, where friends and family had gathered to celebrate the victory. He was still dressed in his white uniform, and he was met with claps and whistles when he arrived.

His mother, Annette, and father, Joseph, smiled as he approached. Conklin’s time at Chaifetz Arena is over. But his journey is not complete. 

Come March, he will have another chance to add to his legacy.

“Four years ago, when he decided to come to Saint Louis, I wasn’t sure what would take place,” Joseph said, the party carrying on around him.

“I am so proud. Tonight is even more of a reality of what a fine young man he has grown up to be.”