On Saturday afternoon in Orlando, Fla., Jake Barnett, Mike McCall Jr., Dwayne Evans, Rob Loe and Jordair Jett played their last game in Billiken jerseys as their tournament dreams were snatched by the defending National Champions. For the third year in a row, they failed to advance past the Round of 32.
“It comes to a crashing halt for everyone except the national champion—it comes down fast,” coach Jim Crews explained Friday afternoon. “It’s a little bit of a shock to the system, especially for the seniors…[it’s] very emotional for them.”
From becoming the first Rick Majerus team to ever finish with a losing record as freshmen to battling through tragedy to claim the Atlantic 10 championship last season, Saint Louis’ seniors have been to hell and back over the past four years.
Unfortunately, the game is callous to the human element, just as it is ignorant to seeding, overall record and program’s prestige.
For the Billikens, Saturday afternoon’s game against Louisville provided a neatly-packaged, 40-minute showcase of their best and worst tendencies.
“We didn’t play particularly well today,” Crews said afterwards. “We just weren’t good enough with the ball… For the most part when it was in the half court we did a pretty good job defensively. [But] we weren’t very good or efficient offensively.”
Despite hitting just six of its first 21 shots from the field and committing 11 turnovers, SLU only faced a 25-16 deficit at halftime, due in large part to its defense, which managed to come up with just enough stops to keep the Cardinals from pulling away.
Undaunted but not oblivious to what was on the line over the final 20 minutes, the Billikens came out firing in the second half, ripping off a 13-2 run over the opening 5:35 to seize a 29-27 advantage with a layup by Loe.
However, once they had a lead, they started to get careless, committing turnovers on their next two possessions, both of which were caused by poor ball handling and resulted in buckets on the other end for Louisville. 33-29 Cardinals.
“We had two careless turnovers and they converted them for points,” Jett said in the locker room. “I think we had some momentum.”
“We got a little anxious on offense, trying to force a couple of things instead of sharing the ball around,” McCall added.
Immediately after the second steal-and-score, Crews called timeout, hoping to get his team back on track.
Whatever he said during the break worked—at least at first.
SLU came out and kept pace with Louisville, moving to within four following a layup by Loe with 10:20 remaining.
Unfortunately, just as it appeared the Billikens were ready to make another run at the surging Cardinals, their offense completely unraveled, failing to even score a point over the next five minutes.
“You hear the expression ‘defense wins championships’,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “A lack of offense keeps you from winning a championship. Every team can play defense at this stage, so you’ve got to have a great offense to win.”
In the final 10 minutes of regulation, SLU hit just six of 18 shots from the field, attempted (and missed) seven 3-pointers and hit just two of five free throw attempts. Louisville capitalized and pulled away 66-51 victory.
A disappointing end to what was otherwise a fantastic season for the program and a tremendous four-year run by its five leaders.
“One game certainly is not going to dictate one thing or another,” Crews said in his opening statement. “I certainly don’t want that to overshadow—it won’t overshadow in our program – what these seniors have done. They’ve had an amazing career.”
In the locker room after the game, there was no crying, only reflection from the seniors on this season and their careers. The moments immediately following Saturday’s game was a subtle reminder of these seniors’ most admirable trait.
Through all the adversity, all the good, bad and ugly things that have happened, these five young men have shown an uncanny ability to maintain their composure—they never allowed themselves to get too far high or too far down. It is one of the primary forces that drove their success and kept them together through the years.
“It’s emotional—sad, mad, little disappointed,” Jett said. “It was fun. We did a lot of good things for the school and ourselves, so it’s exciting.”
“You want to go out with a win, but I’ve had the pleasure of playing with four great seniors this year,” Barnett said. “Looking back on going to the NCAA Tournament three times and winning some games there and winning some conference championships, who wouldn’t want that? We had a great run together and overall, we had a heck of a season… I love these guys. I love the other four seniors.”
“It was an emotional day, especially for us seniors. You just have to move on,” McCall said. “We all know that we had great runs here… [When I first arrived], I saw that we had a great group of guys—a lot of guys that like to work, work hard and just put it all on the floor. That’s what made us come to the Tournament and win championships… We worked really hard to get where we ended up.”
Statistically, they will go down as the winningest class in school history (93 wins); fans will remember them as the class that resurrected Billiken basketball.
They may not have gotten Saint Louis its first Sweet 16 berth, but in a few years when the program does finally reach the second weekend of the Tournament, we will be pointing to the Class of 2014 as the one that made it all possible.
“They’re the winningest group in Saint Louis history,” Crews said. “They won three championships in the last two year, the number of games they’ve won in the last three years, three NCAA Tournaments… They’ve been good. They’ve been great ambassadors within the community and really the world… Big picture, I couldn’t be more proud. I salute these guys for having a wonderful, wonderful career.”