Billikens withstand VCU pressure, claim A-10 tourney title

Dave Buscema, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

NEW YORK -- The pressure came at Saint Louis from all angles, literally and figuratively, the Billikens' 13-point lead suddenly down to one.
Virginia Commonwealth's swarming Havoc press had finally rattled the Billikens in the second half and its large crowd at the Barclays Center for Sunday's Atlantic 10 tournament final was doing its best to exert vocal pressure to match its frenzied team.
Saint Louis interim head coach Jim Crews called a timeout for his players, which had uncharacteristically gestured in frustration at each other, overwhelmed by the Rams' swarming pressure.
The Billikens responded as they have all year to Crews, who took over when former coach Rick Majerus grew ill, and mentored the team through Majerus' death in December.
They calmed down. They dug in. And ultimately, though Crews was sure to point out afterwards that results in a game are not his way of honoring a man's life, they emerged with the win.
Cody Ellis hit a 3-pointer to settle Saint Louis down and Kwamain Mitchell later hit another important 3 as the top-seeded Billikens topped second-seeded VCU, 62-56.
The victory gave Saint Louis its first Atlantic 10 tournament title, to go with its first regular-season conference championship of any kind since 1957.
Mitchell, the senior who had to overcome an injury this year, led No. 16 Saint Louis (27-6) with 19 points. Dwayne Evans, named the tournament's most outstanding player, added 16 for the Billikens.
"It's an honor," Mitchell said, when asked what winning the tournament meant a few months after Majerus' death. "Coach Majerus was a big part of this program. ... The accomplishment is great. It means a lot to us."
Treveon Graham scored 20 points and Juvonte Reddic had 15 for No. 25 VCU (26-8), which got zero points from senior Troy Daniels, who fell into foul trouble early in the second half.
While Crews and several players acknowledged their thoughts have turned to Majerus during a season that has foes predicting a lengthy NCAA Tournament run, the coach said he draws a line at how his team can illustrate his belief that Majerus' "wisdom is embedded into" the players.
"You know, it'd be great to say, 'Hey this is for Rick, this is for Rick, this is for Rick,'" Crews said. "But, you know what? What if we lose? I just don't buy into that. Rick's life and friendship and his coaching and the relationships that he had, and the people that he touched is a lot bigger than winning a game or winning a championship or having a good year. That's how I see it."
The Rams shot just 33.9 percent from the field and missed the presence of Daniels, who picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the second half and sat out most of it.
"I thought our guys fought hard, battled, almost overcame a terrible shooting day, but didn't quite overcome it," said a hoarse VCU coach Shaka Smart.
Up 45-32 with 11:45 left after Evans hit two free throws, the Billikens appeared set to ride their star to another victory. But Saint Louis finally started to show signs of succumbing to VCU's vaunted press, as the Rams went on a 13-1 run, rattling the Billikens and pulling within 46-45 with 8:52 left.
After Billikens guard Mike McCall Jr. struggled bringing the ball up court a couple of times and Reddic capped a five-point streak with a slam dunk off a steal to get the large VCU crowd roaring, Crews called timeout.
With anyone who had watched Louisville stun Syracuse in the Big East tournament final across the bridge Saturday night knowing how quickly a ferocious press can unravel even a good team, Saint Louis turned to sixth man Jordair Jett to bring the ball up court. He did so calmly, and Ellis then hit a huge 3 to settle Saint Louis.
Ellis also countered a 3-pointer by Graham with a jumper on the next possession to keep the lead at three, 51-48 with 6:50 left, and later credited his coach for calming the team.
"I mean, he just stays calm and composed," said Ellis, who scored nine points. "I think VCU sped us up a little bit, and I think us slowing down started in the timeout."
Told of Ellis' comments and asked to explain how he calms his team, Crews deadpanned "I don't know. I'm old." As the comment drew laughter, Crews added, "My wife says boring."
But Crews recognized that his team had been through a lot off the court, much less on it. The pressure-packed environment of a conference tournament game did not jar the coach who had to gather his players after they learned of Majerus' death in December.
Crews told them during the timeout to "just try to do the next right thing," he said, adding it wasn't "the end of the world if we lose, but, hey, let's try to do our best to compete."
A few minutes later, Mitchell hit his third 3 of the game, with the shot clock winding down and Reddic on him tight for a 54-48 lead with 4:48 left.
Graham hit two free throws to make it 60-56 in the final minute, but the Rams could get no closer.
"I thought, probably, the shot of the game was Kwamain Mitchell's deep 3 with the shot clock winding down," Smart said. "Our whole style of play is to get the other team rattled, and I think for a stretch there we had it going the way we wanted. They were having trouble even getting the ball inbounds. But then they've got some older guys that stepped up, that made big shots."
NOTES: The rest of the all-tournament first team was: Reddic, Mitchell, Chaz Williams of Massachusetts and Rotnei Clarke of Butler. ... Saint Louis' last appearance in a conference tournament was in 2000, when the Billikens won the Conference USA tournament. ... Filmmaker and Brooklyn native Spike Lee attended the game, sporting a VCU jersey. ... Attendance was sparse in the early rounds, but Sunday's crowd was announced as 7,535 with the arena set up for a 7,808 capacity, according to a conference spokesperson.

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