The Saint Louis Billikens enhanced their NCAA tournament resume on Selection Sunday by defeating the Virginia Commonwealth Rams 62-56 in the Barclays Center to win the Atlantic 10 conference tournament.
It was truly a clash of styles, as the Rams like to be aggressive and attack constantly, while Saint Louis prefers the more methodical approach. As it turned out, the more deliberate team came out on top.
Senior guard Kwamain Mitchell—who is in the midst of a lackluster shooting season—led the Billikens with 19 points. And he accounted for 12 of the Billikens' 29 in the first hal,f as they held an eight-point advantage.
Dwayne Evans also stung the Rams on the inside primarily, notching 16 points and six rebounds.
VCU head coach Shaka Smart deployed his trademark full-court press when the Rams were down early, and it led to eight Saint Louis turnovers within the first 10 minutes of the game.
Unfortunately, they had 10 turnovers of their own in the first half, and the Billikens didn't cough it up for another 16 minutes. Once Saint Louis cracked the code on the havoc-wreaking VCU defense, Mitchell and Co. were able to get several easy transition buckets to pad the lead early.
As might be expected due to the relentlessness of the Rams, that success didn't last very long.
A lightning-quick 13-1 run in the middle of the second half cut the Billikens' lead to 46-45 with under nine minutes remaining. The Billikens were able to bail themselves out with strong defense and clutch buckets down the stretch by Mitchell and streaky three-point shooter Cody Ellis.
The Rams' typically high-scoring offense went cold, shooting under 34 percent for the game. Treveon Graham is the leader on the offensive end for the Rams. He led all scorers with 20 points, but sank just six of his 16 attempts from the field.
Although it wasn't pretty for VCU, there is a silver lining: Troy Daniels picked up his fourth foul at the 18:11 mark after halftime and was a non-factor. He averages 12.5 points per game and shoots better than 40 percent from beyond the arc, so his lack of production hurt a lot.
In any event, the A-10 have two very dangerous teams entering March Madness, in addition to the Butler Bulldogs. But with this win on Sunday, Saint Louis solidified itself as the cream of the crop.
If the Billikens can have this kind of offensive efficiency in the Big Dance, few will want to step with them. Don't be surprised if Jim Crews' squad makes a deep run as a bracket-buster.
USA Today college basketball writer Eric Prisbell heaped high praise on the Billikens after their impressive showing, even giving them legitimate Final Four hype:
Eric Prisbell @EricPrisbell
Unless Saint Louis encounters Louisville in the Sweet 16, I can't see how I will not pick Jim Crews' very impressive team to reach Atlanta.2013-3-17 18:23:21
The Rams couldn't quite knot the game in the second half, but Tim Pearrell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted a big factor that contributed to that:
Tim Pearrell @timpearrelltd
#VCU picks up 5th foul of half with 16:41 on terrible flop/acting job by Saint Louis' Cody Ellis. Rams have four fouls in 27 seconds.2013-3-17 18:26:14
That confirmed the assertion CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello made in the early going of this extremely intense matchup:
Jeff Borzello @jeffborzello
The way the refs call VCU and Saint Louis was going to be a factor coming in. Both teams are physical and get away with tons of contact.2013-3-17 17:31:54
Borzello's colleague, Jon Rothstein, made a great point about the consistent execution of Saint Louis' game plans:
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Saint Louis takes away their opponents strengths as well as anyone. Billikens are playing at a tortose's pace today ---- against VCU.2013-3-17 18:31:20
Matthew Hatfield of VirginiaPreps.com made a proclamation that's difficult to argue with, despite his probable in-state bias:
Matthew Hatfield @hatfieldsports
There's not a College Basketball Head Coach in the country that gets his guys to play harder than Shaka Smart does at #VCU.2013-3-17 18:55:44
Virginia Associated Press writer Hank Kurz Jr. poked fun at Cody Ellis' hair after his huge three-pointer stretched the Saint Louis lead to five late in the game:
Hank Kurz Jr. @hankkurzjr
#VCU might be first team ever to lose conference championship on a shot by a dude with blue hair? #A102013-3-17 19:12:39
Kwamain Mitchell, Saint Louis: A+
The leadership that Mitchell displayed was exemplary. He exceeded all expectations on the offensive end and was instrumental in helping the Billikens build their sizable early advantage that even the resilient Rams couldn't ultimately overcome. If not for his play, Saint Louis likely wouldn't have been able to win due to its 17 turnovers.
Treveon Graham, VCU: B
VCU needed someone to step up. Graham did drain a couple key threes in the second half to make things interesting, but overall, it was by no means his best game—although he did snag an impressive 12 rebounds. Look for him to bounce back with a better all-around performance in the NCAA tournament.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: A
The extremely versatile forward spun his way into the lane and got to the rim at will against the smaller VCU lineup in half-court sets. Evans got to the line constantly and also defended well. The Rams' guard-heavy attack relies on dribble penetration, and Evans held the fort down well for the most part.
Juvonte Reddic, VCU: B+
The lone big man in the Rams' main lineup played his heart out, relentlessly attacking on the inside and displaying the endless hustle that makes the Rams so dangerous. Unfortunately, he couldn't do quite enough as a paint enforcer, which was not good against a relatively poor shooting team.