COLUMBUS, Ohio – As the final seconds ticked down Friday night, Rick Majerus tucked his glasses into the collar of his sweater. He waddled over, waited for the horn and went through the handshake line. Then he waddled off the floor, his only celebration a little point to the stands, as if Saint Louis' 61-54 West Regional victory over Memphis was no big deal.
Maybe to Majerus, it was no big deal. He is 11-1 in opening games of the NCAA tournament. But to the Billikens, it was their biggest victory since 1998, the last time they won in the NCAAs, and it made the large man larger than life.
It made him "SLUperman," according to a poster held aloft at the other end of the court – a poster with Majerus' red, round, spectacled head barking something atop the majestic, flying body of Superman, complete with six-pack abs.
"Well, that was probably a restaurant owner," Majerus said. "That might have been the guy from LoRusso's or something like that."
Nope. It was a fan named Nick Marchesano, who went to Saint Louis when basketball meant nothing there, saw Majerus become the coach in 2007 and waited for the day basketball would mean something again. Marchesano is 23 now. He has graduated. But he was in a No. 3 Kwamain Mitchell jersey in Columbus screaming his head off.
What does Majerus mean to Saint Louis?
"Everything, dude," Marchesano yelled. "No one gave a [bleep] about SLU basketball. Majerus came in. Instant credibility. Started bringing the recruits in. We knew it was only going to be a matter of time before he got us here."
Instant credibility, yes. Majerus had won everywhere he had been – Marquette, Ball State, Utah – taking the Utes to the Sweet 16 four times, the Elite Eight twice and to the NCAA title game once. He was as famous for winning as he was for his affable, self-deprecating personality, his heart trouble, his love of food.
But instant karma? Not exactly. After building the win total from 16 to 18 to 23 in his first three seasons at Saint Louis, Majerus went 12-19 last season – the only losing season of his long career.
He lost his top two players after an investigation into an alleged sexual assault. (Charges never were filed. "I didn't suspend them; I thought they were suspended unjustly," he said.) Majerus missed three games after he was bumped into a bracket protruding from a scorer's table, suffered a cut and ended up with an infection – a bizarre health issue in a career full of health issues. Then he lost his beloved mother, Alyce, to cancer in August.
But he got one of those suspended players, Mitchell, back this season, and SLU went 25-7. The Billikens made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. Majerus made it for the first time since 2003. He told his players to stay calm, to believe they could win, to do what they had done all season.
And then he did what he does best: He devised a game plan that the Billikens, the No. 9 seed in the West Region, used to stifle the eighth-seeded Tigers.
Mitchell was the hero. He scored 22, including three clutch 3-pointers – a bank shot at the buzzer to forge a 23-23 halftime tie; a floater from the corner that gave them a 45-44 lead with 6:24 to go, after they had trailed by eight; and a bomb that beat the shot clock to extend the lead to 48-44 not long afterward.
That wasn't what this game was about, though. That's not what Majerus is about. When Majerus used to work at ESPN as an analyst, he tried to put together defensive montages, only to be told they weren't going to "show somebody in their stance on 'SportsCenter.'" When a CBS reporter corralled Majerus after the game and asked about Mitchell's budding stardom, Majerus steered the conversation to defense and rebounding.
The Billikens made plays Friday night. They actually outscored the much more athletic Tigers on the break, 11-6.
But they won because they made Chris Crawford go 0-of-5 from 3-point range. They won because they took away Will Barton's curls, his drives, his start-and-stop dribble that he always takes to his right. They won because they got Tarik Black to foul out. They won because they kept only one guy on the offensive boards and sent four back.
The Tigers couldn't run the way they wanted to. They had to play half-court offense and stayed on the perimeter. They took too many 3-pointers and took them too quickly. They scored 54 points, their lowest total of the season. They shot 38.9 percent from the field and 13.3 percent from 3-point range, and this was a top-10 team in offensive efficiency.
"They basically took away our fast break," Memphis guard Joe Jackson said. "We played into their hands by just settling for bad shots. I guess we probably didn't see that this whole season, a team like that, that just got back every single time. That kind of messed us up."
Said Saint Louis forward Cody Ellis: "Our game plan was to slow them down. They had to execute plays to score, and they're not really used to that from the film we watched. They're out running and gunning. … I think we definitely started to frustrate them with our defense, and they couldn't get the shots that they wanted or usually get."
When it was over, Majerus, 64, shook hands with Memphis coach Josh Pastner, 34 – a walk-on at Arizona in 1998, when the Wildcats, the defending national champions, suffered a shocking 25-point loss in the Final Four to Majerus' Utes.
If Majerus noticed the "SLUperman" poster, he didn't let on. He doesn't make himself out to be Superman.
"I was born with a jelly belly," Majerus said with a belly laugh. "The interesting thing is my mom was a very statuesque, beautiful woman, lean and all that. I never got that gene."
Just basketball in his blood.
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- Rick Majerus
- Saint Louis