After Saint Louis defeated VCU 62-56 to earn the Atlantic 10′s automatic bid, the bracket was revealed with the Billikens as a No. 4 seed taking on No. 13 seed New Mexico State in the Midwest Region.
“It’s a great honor for these kids to do something that a lot of really good teams and good basketball don’t get to do,” Saint Louis interim head coach Jim Crews said. “Very few college players win championships.”
VCU (26-8, 11-5 A10) scored the first basket of the game, but the Rams would never lead again. Saint Louis (27-6, 12-4 A10) responded with an 11-0 run fueled by Kwamain Mitchell’s six points and two steals. The Rams fought back to within as little as one point in the first half, but the Billikens used an 11-2 spurt to build the lead up to 10 points before Briante Weber’s bucket cut the halftime score to 29-21.
Saint Louis took its largest lead of the game at 13 points on a pair of free throws by senior Dwayne Evans with 11:45 remaining, but the Rams turned up the defensive pressure and made a furious rally. Using a 13-1 run, they were back within one point inside of nine minutes to play.
Saint Louis senior Cody Ellis stepped up to make a three-pointer to bump the lead back to four, and two possessions later, after VCU had pulled back within one, he knocked down a pull-up jumper. Mitchell, a fifth-year senior, drained a three-point shot to extend the lead to six points, and two minutes later Ellis knocked down another trey. The Rams would not get any closer than four points the rest of the way.
“When we need it, Cody is going to make the shot,” Dwayne Evans, also a senior, said. “Same goes for Kwamain.”
“Being a senior,” Ellis said. “You’ve got to be one of those guys to step up to the plate and make a big play. I think my teammates had a lot of confidence in me.”
Ellis, the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year, recorded nine points and provided his usual boost off the bench.
“Not many people enjoy coming off the bench, but I try to come in and create a spark,” he said.
Ellis made three timely baskets, but Mitchell and Evans paced the team’s scoring with 19 and 16 points, respectively. Evans, who averaged 21.7 points and 9.3 rebounds over three games in Brooklyn, was named the tournament MVP. He was extremely efficient as well, shooting 76 percent from the field and 86.7 percent from the foul line. Mitchell was especially important in the first half, scoring 12 points while the rest of Saint Louis’ offense sputtered. Against VCU’s “Havoc” defense, he had zero turnovers through the first 27 minutes.
Saint Louis had an astonishingly tough season. During the offseason, head coach Rick Majerus announced that he was taking a leave of absence due to heart problems. On December 1, Majerus passed away from heart failure.
But Mitchell’s year has been extra tough. The fifth-year senior was injured during the second day of practice, and he did not appear in a game until December 28. But his return is a big part of what transformed the Billikens into an Atlantic 10 champion and Final Four contender.
Crews had only the highest praise for his veteran leader. “[Kwamain] gets hurt the second day of practice. That’s so disheartening,” Crews said. “But he came to practice every day. He encouraged the other kids. He couldn’t do anything physically, but he helped us mentally. He helped us emotionally. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, which is an unbelievably mature way to go about it…When he got back, he was just fitting in. He didn’t try to do his thing. He did the team’s thing. It’s been a great honor to coach Kwamain just because of that mentality and attitude.”
By now, Saint Louis is probably getting ready to prepare for New Mexico State, but they can still enjoy the feeling of being a champion.
“It’s unreal,” Ellis said. “I’m still trying to find the words to perfectly explain it. I don’t think I ever will. To finally in my senior year be able to cut down two nets, and now I’m hoping for a third obviously, it’s unreal.”
Other Notes from the Atlantic 10 Championship Game
—Cody Ellis on the job Jim Crews has done as interim head coach this season: “He’s been put in a situation that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. It’s a tough situation, and he’s handled it unbelievably. All the coaches have handled it. I think we’ve done a good job of coming together as a team, both players and coaches, and having each other’s back. That’s a big part of why we’ve been successful.”
—Ellis on Saint Louis’ journey to national prominence: “It’s been a crazy year. And it all started back when Coach Majerus started recruiting us all. It wasn’t just this one year. It’s been a long process.”
—Ellis on Saint Louis’ depth: “I’ve got a lot of confidence in my teammates. The good thing about this team is anyone can come in and make a big play. It doesn’t have to be the seniors. We’re so deep right now. I love it.”
—Crews on Rick Majerus’ lasting impact: “I think that his lessons are certainly a big part of us winning. His fingerprints and the spirit of Rick and just the discipline that he had with the team. The understanding and the wisdom. Our kids are very wise on the basketball floor, and he’s the one that taught them to do that. It’s there every day in practice and every day in the locker room. But Rick’s life is a lot bigger than a championship or a win here and a win there, or even a great season.”
—Kwamain Mitchell on playing since Rick Majerus’ death: “I imagine Coach [Majerus] on the sideline saying, “Get a stop! Get a stop!”
This article was originally published by Jesse Kramer on www.thecatchandshoot.com.
Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot, a blog dedicated to college basketball news, observations and insights on nationwide topics. You can follow Jesse on Twitter at Jesse_Kramer, and you can follow The Catch and Shoot at Catch_N_Shoot.
All quotes in this article were received in person.