It’s always a good thing when a team can learn valuable lessons and further its development while still winning games. Case in point: as they entered the academic break, the Billikens appeared to be in stuck in neutral—they were winning games (vs. Rockhurst, at Valparaiso, vs. Wofford), but they were signs of progress, which allowed concerns surrounding the team’s ability to consistently knock down shots and finish off its opponents to persist.
But on Dec. 18, Saint Louis finally got itself on track with an 83-66 dismantling of Indiana State.
They suddenly caught fire from behind the arc, burying 10 of 25 3-point attempts—six of which came from Austin McBroom and Rob Loe. The long-range attack created more opportunities for Dwayne Evans, who knocked in 16 free throws as part of a season-high 24-point performance.
The home team’s performance on the defensive end of the floor was characterized by the complete shutdown of ISU’s leading scorer Jake Odum, who managed just nine points with seven turnovers.
Perhaps the most encouraging development was what happened when SLU took the lead—they remained hungry. After weathering the Sycamores’ initial charge in the second half, the Billikens ripped off a 21-10 run to bury their unwelcome visitors and claim their fourth win in a row.
“This was a great win,” Evans said. “It’s obviously the best win of the year. We played well throughout the entire game…everyone played well. We really shut down everything they were trying to do. It came down to them making one-on-one plays and that’s something we have to clean up. But as far as their offensive sets, we shut that down for the most part.”
On paper, it’s not nearly as gaudy as last season’s New Year’s Eve beat down of No. 20 New Mexico, but that ravaging of Indiana State marked a turning point in the Bills’ season. Since that game, they’ve strung together five more victories to extend their winning streak to nine and have entered the national rankings for the first time this season, checking in at No. 24 following triumphs in last week’s wins over Rhode Island and Dayton.
“I think we’re playing well,” reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Week Jordair Jett said Saturday afternoon. “But we also feel [that] we can play a lot better. It’s scary how I feel we can play and we all know it too.”
Over the past couple of weeks, the where has been just as important as the how for the Billikens, because sandwiched between relatively easy victories over North Carolina A&T (NCAT) and Yale at the end of the non-conference season was a hard-earned victory in Nashville.
Nine days after they obliterated NCAT, the Billikens found themselves down by five late in the second half on the road against Vanderbilt. Undaunted, they stabilized and began their counter-assault. Jett ignited the offensive onslaught by slicing through the Commodores’ defense for an easy layup. He then extended the run with back-to-back feeds to Loe, who knocked in both buckets to give the visitors their first lead since late in the first half. After staving off one final Vandy surge, Saint Louis seized control with an 8-0 run, capped off by an emphatic two-handed slam from Evans, which gave them a 49-44 advantage with 2 minutes left.
Per usual, Saint Louis’ trademark defense led the way in Nashville, limiting the Commodores to just one field goal (a three-pointer from Luke Hornet with 12 seconds left) over the final eight minutes of the game.
“That was a big boy game,” coach Jim Crews said. “It was a tough, grind out, possession-by-possession game and our guys hung in there and kind of got better as the game progressed.”
With a 75-55 victory over Yale in hand, SLU was off to its best start since the 1993-94 season and, more importantly, was brimming with confidence as it opened its Atlantic 10 slate with games at Rhode Island and at Dayton.
“It’s all about confidence,” McBroom explained. “Coming into this next conference game is big for us to make a statement. We want to make a statement here right off the bat.”
The defending Atlantic 10 champs wanted to make a statement in their first two conference games of the season and that they did, picking up two crucial road wins.
After Jett’s career-high 31-point performance led the Billikens to a dramatic 59-58 victory over Rhode Island (their first in five tries), they traveled to Dayton to take on the rival Flyers. SLU appeared poised to blow the hinges off UD for the second time in a row, utilizing a 12-5 run to match its largest lead of the afternoon at 13 with 13:10 remaining in the second half. But the Flyers refused to go away quietly, closing to within five with 26 seconds remaining.
However, as it has done all season when faced with adversity on the road, Saint Louis maintained its composure and hunkered down, hitting three of four free throw attempts and registering a steal on the final play of the game to ice the 67-59 victory.
“We didn’t do what we usually do and have a lapse in scoring throughout the game,” Evans said. “I think that was a key for us… I still think we have a long way to go, but we’ve got a bunch of guys really buying in, so you can’t beat that.”
After playing three of its last four on the road, SLU welcomed St. Bonaventure to Chaifetz Arena to kick off the spring semester.
The game went according to script. The Bonnies fought and scrapped for the entire 40 minutes, never allowing the Billikens to pull ahead by more than nine. But within the heat of battle, an unlikely hero emerged—freshman Mike Crawford.
“That’s what’s fun about coaching—when you see kids put in the extra effort and stay with the process. Mike just keeps his nose to the grindstone,” Crews explained. “It’s fun to watch those guys develop.”
Crawford, who has seen more playing time over the last few games, hit a pair of crucial three-pointers midway through the second half. The first broke a 47-47 stalemate and gave Saint Louis the lead for good with 9:19 remaining, while the second—a line-drive from the far corner—gave SLU it’s largest lead of the evening at 57-48.
“I just shot it and it just felt good,” Crawford said. “I’m just slowly starting to understand things a little bit better and [I’m] getting more comfortable in my role.”
A litany of missed free throws by the Billikens—they shot a season-low 53.3 percent from the line—allowed Bonaventure to piece together one final run, but a missed three-pointer by Jordan Gathers with three seconds remaining allowed SLU to escape with a 66-60 win, its 10th in a row.
With Wednesday night’s triumph, the Bills are 15-2 on the season and are one of just three teams with a perfect conference record inside the Atlantic 10. They also boast the nation’s best road-record at 6-0 and are ranked among the AP’s Top 25. However, none of these numbers mean much.
“I wouldn’t say there’s much pride in being ranked at all,” Evans said. “It’s a cool number next to our name when we play games. That’s really about all it is. We’ve been here before. We knew we were going to have a target on our back, even if we weren’t ranked, coming off of last year.”