NEW YORK -- Dwayne Evans had just scored 24 points for the second consecutive game, drawing raves from Butler after the St. Louis forward helped the Billikens defeat the Bulldogs for the third time this season.
The top-seeded Billikens' 67-56 win Saturday over fifth-seeded Butler at the Barclays Center sent them to their first Atlantic 10 tournament final Sunday. Evans, touted by opponents as the top player in the conference, was suddenly humbled by teammate Cody Ellis, sitting to his right for the post-game interview. As Evans was asked about his prowess in the post, despite being just 6-foot-5, Ellis had a simple answer for why Evans wasn't focused instead on a more vertical game.
"He can't jump," Ellis said, to laughter.
"Don't be fooled," Evans, who got up enough to grab 13 rebounds, quickly retorted with a smile. "It's a choice. It's a choice. I like the ground game. I'm gonna go out dunk on him tomorrow, just to prove you wrong."
Ellis, who added 13 points, later amended his comments. He praised his teammate as "a really smart player" with a methodical approach, and one who "knows how to finish well."
"Thank you, man," Evans responded, sounding touched.
It was a quick glimpse of the bond that interim coach Jim Crews praised the Billikens for after a season that has included, as he said, "the good, the bad and the tragic."
The 16th-ranked Billikens (26-6) have endured the death of their former coach Rick Majerus in December, promised to play as he would want them to, and have risen steadily under Crews, the A-10 Coach of the Year, and the Sporting News' national coach of the year.
"Rick has a big impact. Rick is someone who we all miss and I certainly miss," Crews said of the iconic coach, known for his sense of humor as well as his basketball prowess. "As a coach and comrade for a long time. There's relationships. And relationships trump everything in my opinion.
"We've got all kinds of different personalities here and they have a real fondness for each other. Winning games is great, championships, all that stuff. But the guys in the locker room know what good teammates are, and we have good teammates."
They also have a toughness that should make them a legitimate contender to compete for the national title in the next few weeks, according to Butler coach Brad Stevens, who said the Billikens were an even more imposing foe than No. 3 Indiana.
"They have depth, they have physicality, they have toughness," Stevens said after Butler fell in its first A-10 tournament amid a report it could be its last with a possible move to the Big East. "They're the strongest team we've played against this year.
Noting his team had played Indiana, Stevens added, "And Indiana's great. Indiana's at the level everyone's going to be chasing them in the tournament, but as far as pure strength, men, St. Louis is old, they've been through it, they've done it and they are men."
The Billikens pulled away after a tight first 30 minutes, with Evans exploiting things inside, drawing fouls, hitting shots, and prompting his defender, Roosevelt Jones, to say "He's probably the most physical player I played against in my life. I really thought he should have been the player of the year in the conference.
"I've never played against nobody that physical, so he got the best of me today."
Evans scored 12 straight points for St. Louis in one stretch in the second half, helping it build a 60-47 lead with 3:29 left. The Billikens, who had 31 free-throw attempts to Butler's 13, also hit six free throws during an 8-0 run that first gave them some breathing room midway through the second half.
Crews pointed out Butler (26-8) might have lost some energy playing in its third straight game and Stevens acknowledged his team, led by Rotnei Clarke's 16 points, suffered from not earning a bye for the first round.
"The third game in three days against a team that physical, that's going to steer you and be on you and ride you and bumper cuts and all that stuff, you've got to have some stuff to you to do that for 40 minutes," Stevens said, calling it the "second factor" beyond the Billikins' talent. "And you kind of saw that the last 10 minutes, they got better and we didn't play as well."
Clarke said it was disappointing to lose out on the chance for a title in the first A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, but had other goals on his mind.
"Obviously we want to win the Atlantic 10 tournament," said Clarke, whose two 3-pointers in the first half erased an early deficit and gave Butler its first lead, "but we want to make a run in this next tournament more."
NOTES: Brad Baer, a 29-year-old teacher at Temple, won $10,000 by hitting a halfcourt shot at halftime. As the crowd cheered, Baer ran and slid on the court, while raising his hands for more cheers after swishing the shot on the run. ... Stevens declined to comment on an Indianapolis Star report that Butler would exit the A-10 for the Big East a year after leaving the Horizon League to join the A-10. He said "it was a heck of a challenging year" playing in the team's new conference. ... At halftime, a collection of members and representatives of the inaugural Atlantic 10 Legends class for men and women were honored on the court. The initial class had 32 members, with 16 each for the men and women.