Defense leads to SLU’s 11-4 start

“We’ve just got to win the next one.”

This philosophy has proven very successful for coach Jill Pizzotti and the Saint Louis University women’s basketball team this season. By taking each game as it comes, the Billikens have already equalled their win total from last season (11). They are 11-4 overall and 2-2 in conference contests.

Cincinnati and Louisville pose the next challenges for the Billikens in Conference USA. SLU squares-off with Cincinnati this Friday at 6 p.m. at the Shoemaker Center. The Bearcats are 12-4 overall and 2-3 in C-USA and are just behind the Billikens in the American Division. Cincinnati has won the past three contests.

The Billikens end a four-game road trip in Louisville on Sunday at 1 p.m. Louisville is 9-7 overall, 4-1 in C-USA and in first place in the American Division. The Cardinals lead the series 11-2.

“Both games will be difficult,” said Pizzotti. “Any conference game on the road will be a challenge. Every game in the conference has been up for grabs.”

The Billikens opened Christmas break by traveling to Columbia for a contest with the University of Missouri on Dec. 7. The Billikens fell behind 16-0 in the first six minutes. SLU went on a 12-2 run. Both teams played evenly through the rest of the first half and the Tigers led 37-31 at the half. Free throws kept SLU in the game as the Billikens hit 17 of the 18 shots from the charity stripe in the first half.

The Billikens tied the contest at 41 six minutes into the second half. Missouri hit a three to regain the lead and never trailed again, as the Tigers won 73-63. Melissa Oliver led the Billikens with 14 points and Christan Shelton added 10.

“It was great to see the ladies battle back,” Pizzotti said. “A lot of positives can be taken from this game. It was a good learning experience.”

The Billikens returned home to battle Minnesota on Dec. 10. SLU played the Golden Gophers close throughout the first half, but trailed Minnesota 32-29 at halftime.

Minnesota built a nine point lead just after intermission. The Billikens battled back, pulling to within one point twice before succumbing to Minnesota, 77-71.

“Minnesota is a good basketball team,” Pizzotti said. “We had trouble with Tanisha Gilbert all night. We did a good job getting to the line.”

SLU then hosted Southern Illinois at Carbondale on Dec. 16. The Billikens muzzled the Salukis and jumped out to a 20-9 lead midway through the half. The Billikens cruised to a 83-56 win. Shelton led the Billikens with 14 points. Star Jackson and Kirsti Holloway added 12. Angie Lewis led SLU on the boards, pulling down nine rebounds.

In the victory, the Billikens set the school record for three-point shooting percentage in a game, shooting 87.5 percent (7-8).

“I was pleased with our effort,” Pizzotti said. “We played hard and executed. It was good to see so many [players] execute. Everyone played and played well, from one to 12.”

SLU ended its homestand with Austin Peay on Dec. 19. The Billikens ran out to a 21-12 lead with eight minutes left in the first half and lead 31-26 at the half. The Billikens used an 8-2 run after the half to provide some breathing room. SLU never looked back as the Billikens won 71-57.

“We knew that defense would be a key going in.” Pizzotti said. “Our full court press created turnovers. They didn’t have much time to work on offense. We didn’t give them time to operate.”

The Billikens took to the road again, facing IUPUI in Indianapolis. The Billikens held the Jaguars to 38 percent shooting from the field and held a 32-24 lead at halftime. SLU built on that lead early and often by shooting nearly 59 percent from the field in the second half. SLU won the contest 79-55. Oliver and Bridget Beckmann both led SLU with 12 points. April McKinney added 11.

“We knew it would be a hard game,” Pizzotti said. “It was a tight game. We took control in the second half. We had a good effort and it was a great game. It was a necessary win.”

SLU then traveled to Virginia for their matchup with Hampton on Dec. 28. It was close throughout, with the Billikens holding a slim 37-31 lead at the half. The Billikens built that lead by shooting 51 percent from the field.

The teams played nearly even in the second half, with the Billikens prevailing 72-70. Three Billikens posted double-digits in scoring. Beckmann scored 20 and hauled in seven rebounds. Jackson added 15 points and Shelton scored 12.

“It’s hard to go on the road,” Pizzotti said. “Hampton is an extremely talented team. We had an all-out effort. Star (Jackson) had a great game. She had no turnovers in the second half against their full court press.”

The Billikens returned home to open their conference schedule against Charlotte and Tulane. The Billikens trailed 10-3 early. SLU tried to overtake the 49ers throughout the half, but trailed 31-29 at halftime.

Charlotte pushed its lead to 44-37 with seven minutes left in the game. SLU ended the game on a 21-5 run to defeat the 49ers 58-49.

McKinney recorded career highs in points (18) and rebounds (13). Jackson added 15 points and Shelton chipped in with 11.

“This was a tremendous game. Our defense gave us the opportunity to win the game,” Pizzotti said. “We held them to 18 points in the second half. Down the stretch, we executed well. April (McKinney) had a great game.”

SLU played host to Tulane on Jan. 5. The Billikens had never beaten the Green Wave. It appeared that that might change this year. The game was a defensive struggle in the opening minutes.

The Billikens imposed their tempo on the game and took a 12-4 lead midway through the first half. SLU used their speed on the fast break and defense to build the lead and hold the Green Wave without a field goal for over seven minutes. Tulane made a run just before the half. But SLU maintained the lead, 27-23.

Tulane took a seven point lead with seven minutes left. The Billikens would not give up, especially against a team whose average margin of victory over SLU was nearly 20 points.

Jackson hit a three to tie the contest at 44. Jackson buried another three and hit a layup to give the Billikens a 49-48 lead. McKinney scored to give SLU a 51-48 lead. Tulane cut the lead to one. After a missed free throw by Oliver, Tulane converted a pair of free throws to win 52-51.

“We were in the best situation that you could ask for,” Pizzotti said. “We’re not in that situation if we make our free throws. They kept us off balance offensively. We did the job defensively. We executed very well defensively.”

SLU traveled to Hattiesburg for their first road conference contest against Southern Miss. The Billikens shot 42 percent from the field on the game and forced 25 turnovers on their way to a 64-54 win over the Golden Eagles. Shelton paced the Billikens with 20 points. Oliver added 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds.

“It was great to see our ladies bounce back from the tough loss to Tulane,” Pizzotti said. “It was great to see their determination to get things righted again.”

The Billikens continued on to Charlotte for a road contest against the 49ers. The Billikens held a 32-20 lead at halftime.

But SLU had trouble finding the basket in the second half, scoring only 13 points in the second half. The Billikens couldn’t hold a 16 point lead and lost to Charlotte, 49-45.

“Things started out well,” Pizzotti said. “We had a 16-point lead in the second half. Charlotte came storming back and made things difficult for us.”