Billikens await George Washington showdown

It has been an eventful and historically successful week for the Saint Louis Billikens.

It began with Saturday’s highly-anticipated showdown with VCU. The Rams, who had just knocked off George Washington, rolled into town looking to avenge its two losses from a year ago–the second of which came in Brooklyn at the Atlantic 10 Championship game.

After a back and forth first half, the Billikens, feeding off the energy of a raucous, sold-out Chaifetz Arena crowd, seized a 49-37 advantage midway through the second half with an 18-4 surge that featured a put-back slam by senior Dwayne Evans and a 3-pointer by Mike McCall.

SLU had an opportunity to further extend its lead but failed to take advantage. Behind a 16-4 run the Rams tied the score at 53 with 2:17 remaining.

SLU’s response came in the form of a game-clinching run orchestrated entirely by its five seniors.

McCall ignited the surge with a jumper. Graham’s errant 3-point attempt on the ensuing possession bounced off the iron and into the hands of Jett, who took it back the other way for an easy layup. VCU tried to catch SLU off-guard with a stretch pass down the length of the floor, but Loe was ready, batting it away and denying them access to the basket.

The 6-foot-11 New Zealander struck again moments later, this time on the other end of the floor with a wide-open 3-pointer off the feed from Jett that capped off the 7-0 run and proved to be the final dagger for Saint Louis.

When the dust settled, the senior quintet of Evans, Jett, Loe, McCall and Jake Barnett accounted for 85 percent of the available minutes and 62 of the 64 points scored.

“When it comes down to it, in the last two minutes, we really look at each other and say, ‘Let’s get it done,’” Evans said. “We trust each other to be in the right place and do the right thing.”

SLU was rewarded for its efforts against VCU in both the AP and the USA Today Coaches Polls, moving up to no. 10, its highest perch since Dec. 29, 1964, when it checked in at No. 9.

“For me, there’s not much difference between 12 and 10,” Barnett said. “It’s two spots. It’s good to get another quality win against VCU. I’m glad that equals the top 10 in the nation, but we’ve still got six games to go.”

The move into the top 10 was another milestone for the program that the late Rick Majerus worked tirelessly to resurrect over the final five years of his life.

It took him a few seasons, but in 2011-12, Majerus led the team to a 26-8 finish and its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000. His and the university’s collective vision for the program were finally starting to become a reality.

“We’ll be a Top 10 team in about three years,” he said in a March 2012 interview. “I did it at Ball State, did it at Utah and we’re going to do it here.” Monday, the day in which Saint Louis moved into the top 10 for the first time in almost 50 years, would have been Majerus’ 66th birthday.

With the higher ranking came extra motivation for the Billikens’ final conference opponents to step up their game and Wednesday night, George Mason gave them all they could handle. Missed free throws and offensive rebounds nearly cost SLU the game in regulation, but Jett managed to knock in the second of his two free throws to send the game into overtime where the Billikens, energized by a pair of treys by Loe, managed to pull away for an 89-85 win.

It was their 18th win in a row and improved their overall record to 24-2 (11-0 A-10).

If there was a comeback program of the year award in college basketball, 20-6 George Washington would be among the frontrunners. Under the direction of second-year coach Mike Lonergan, the Colonials, who finished last season near the bottom of the A-10 at 13-17, are on track for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007.

“They’re a very physical team,” Crews said following the game. “They really attack you in so many different ways. I’m very pleased with our guys. We kept hanging in there.”

While he returned all five starters from last year’s team, Lonergan will be without his second leading scorer, sophomore Kethan Savage, who fractured a metatarsal in his left foot earlier this season and will miss the next two to four weeks. Savage’s injury significantly shortened the Colonials’ bench, but failed to knock them off track. In fact, they stayed hot, winning four of their next five games before falling to VCU and Massachusetts last week.

GW’s success thus far in the season has been keyed by its balanced scoring attack. Led by Indiana transfer Maurice Creek (14.1 ppg), it boasts five players averaging in double-figures (Savage was at 13.4 ppg), including forwards Isaiah Armwood (12.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Kevin Larsen (11.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) who are averaging nearly a double-double per game.

As a team, they are among the conference leaders on both offense and defense in scoring and field goal percentage.

“Every game is important now this time of the year,” Lonergan said. “I was just proud of our guys. We hung in there [and] made enough plays at the end… That was definitely a much needed win for us.”

Tip-off between Saint Louis and up-start George Washington is slated for 7 p.m.