Saint Louis holds off VCU to tighten its grip on first place in the Atlantic 10

If you had told Shaka Smart before Saturday's game that his team's swarming full-court press would harass Saint Louis into committing 17 turnovers, the VCU coach probably would have taken that.

The trouble for the Rams was they didn't parlay the Billikens' miscues into nearly enough easy baskets.

Saint Louis overcame its uncharacteristic sloppiness and emerged with a 64-62 victory because the Rams could neither generate opportunities in transition nor score consistently in the half court against the Billikens' stifling man-to-man defense. VCU shot 38.5 percent from the floor, hit just 2 of 16 from behind the arc and trailed by as many as 12 points in the second half.

A late 9-0 surge from the Rams tied the score at 53 and momentarily made the Chaifetz Arena crowd nervous, but Saint Louis responded with trademark poise and perseverance. Driving layups by Mike McCall and Jordair Jett pushed the lead back to four, then Rob Loe clinched it with an Ali Faroukhmanesh-esque 3-pointer that came too early in the shot clock for his coaching staff's liking but broke the backs of the Rams anyway.

Had VCU found a way to upset the Billikens, the Rams would have moved to within a game of first place in the loss column with Saint Louis coming to Richmond for a return date later this month. Instead the Billikens can all but start printing up Atlantic 10 title T-shirts since they now hold a three-game lead in the loss column over VCU, Saint Joseph's and Richmond with only six games left in the regular season.

Saint Louis' victory should move the 12th-ranked Billikens even closer to their first top 10 ranking this season. They've won 17 straight games for the first time in school history and their only losses this season were by five against Wichita State and by six against Wisconsin.

A year ago, Saint Louis was a trendy sleeper pick to make a deep March run after winning the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles, but the Billikens were bounced in the round of 32 by a torrid-shooting Oregon team. Every key player except Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis returned, yet Saint Louis has flown under the radar nationally all season.

Maybe it's that Saint Louis plays a defense-oriented, grind-it-out style. Maybe it's that the Billikens didn't register any eye-popping non-league wins. Maybe it's that the Atlantic 10 race lacks its usual drama.

Whatever the reason, Saint Louis can't be ignored much longer because the Billikens' combination of tough, physical defense and precision offense will again make them a tough out in March.

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