Majerus makes Saint Louis debut in 54-43 victory

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—Only one game into a long weekend and a very long season, Saint Louis’ players don’t need any more convincing. They made up their minds long ago, even before preseason practice and the long grind of a four-month season began.

All the hype was right. Rick Majerus can coach.

Kevin Lisch scored 24 points and Saint Louis won its debut under the former Utah coach, going on a 12-2 run to rebound from a halftime deficit and beat North Carolina A&T 54-43 on Friday.

Tommie Liddell added 10 points and Luke Meyer had seven points and nine rebounds in the Hispanic College Fund Classic tournament at Pitt in which four teams play three games each in three days. Saint Louis meets Houston Baptist on Saturday and No. 22 Pittsburgh on its home court Sunday.

“It’s brutal, this tournament,” Majerus said. “But I knew it would be good to go on the road, it would be good mentally.”

Good, too, to have three games far from home to get settled, to stay away from all the expectations and we’ll-be-in-the-Final Four someday soon talk. This was a weekend away to come together, to gain more confidence, to get to know the new coach and his system even better.

“The coaches did an amazing job of preparing us,” Lisch said. “I feel like I could play for North Carolina A&T right now. It was so amazing how we picked up their plays and everything in the second half, and that helped a lot.”

The Billikens (1-0) trailed 26-25 at halftime, but a technical foul on A&T’s Steven Rush with about 13 minutes remaining started the decisive run as Lisch made the ensuing two free throws, putting Saint Louis up 35-32. Lisch then hit a 3-pointer and a jumper, and Liddell added a 3-pointer while scoring on consecutive possessions that made it 45-34 with 7 1/2 minutes left.

“It’s not like the pros where you get one shot,” Lisch said. “Getting a technical is a pretty big deal.”

Majerus had a 422-147 record in 20 seasons at Marquette, Ball State and Utah, the seventh-best record among active coaches, but hadn’t been on the sideline since health problems forced him to quit after Utah started 15-5 in 2003-04.

He accepted the Southern Cal job in 2005, only to resign several days later. He didn’t change his mind after signing a six-year contract last spring at Saint Louis, an Atlantic 10 school hoping to make a splash as it moves into a new, 10,600-seat arena that opens next year. Former coach Brad Soderberg was fired despite going 20-13 last season,

Still, the 60-year-old Majerus acted as if he’d had only a few days off since that final game at Utah, not nearly four years off.

“I never think about that stuff. I never give contemplative thoughts about any of that, I always think of the here and now,” Majerus said. “I think, `OK, today I’m in Pittsburgh and I’m coaching.”’

Majerus, who worked with ESPN for several seasons, is known for being animated, talkative and involved with every possession. This game, he stood in front of his bench in a black knit turtleneck and slacks without once sitting down, calmly coaching his players without raising his voice.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the first day of practice or game day, Coach Majerus is the same,” Meyer said.

Of course, any coach would find satisfaction with the way Saint Louis clamped down defensively, limiting the Aggies (0-1) to 11 points in the final 14 minutes.

“It was nice to get a game in and get a win, but the whole season is going to be a learning experience,” Lisch said. “Every day I think we’re feeling more comfortable. He is huge on defense, as people know from his days at Utah. That’s one thing he emphasizes, defense—and getting your school work done.”

Majerus was understandably worried about the out-of-town opener played before a nearly invisible audience, with only about 100 fans in the stands for the late-afternoon tipoff. North Carolina A&T won 15 games last season, and Majerus spent much of the preseason installing new offensive and defensive systems.

“You could see our lack of depth and lack of practice. We’ve got a lot of problems,” Majerus said. “But one game, tonight, we couldn’t have played much harder, I don’t think.”

Liddell, the leading returning scorer with a 15.4 average, spent much of the preseason being pushed by Majerus to improve his defensive play and did not start the team’s only exhibition game. He had trouble finding a rhythm early and made only two of seven shots in the first half before finishing 4-of-9.

“He’s getting better defensively, but he took some bad shots tonight,” Majerus said.

Jason Wills led the Aggies with 14 points. Rush missed all but three of his 15 shots and was 1-of-8 on 3-pointers while being held to nine points as A&T shot 30.8 percent (16-of-52).

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 N.C. A&T
J. Wills J. Wills
5-14,  14 Pts
7 Rebs, 2 Assists
 Saint Louis
K. Lisch K. Lisch
7-10,  24 Pts
4 Rebs, 4 Assists

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