What we thought was a swift and dramatic fall by the Billikens instead turned into a swift and dramatic comeback against North Carolina State in their first NCAA tournament game in Orlando, a remarkable 83-80, overtime win over the Wolfpack.
I was prepared to outline why the Billikens fell apart down the stretch of a once promising season. Prepared to tell you before their loss to Duquesne last month, they were only allowing opposing teams to hit 26.6 percent of their three-pointers, the best three-point defense in the country … but had allowed 37.3 percent since. I was prepared to explain that they were a 33.2-percent three-point shooting team before their disastrous six-game stretch run, but just a 25-percent three-point shooting team thereafter.
I was ready to tell you that the team was worn out, that it just couldn’t hold leads because its energy had been sapped by a 19-game winning streak. That the Billikens had used up their go-to guys, Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett, and that their lack of depth had come back to haunt them.
Then, magic occurred. Down by 16 points in the second half, the Billikens turned into a dynamo. T.J. Warren’s layup with 8:13 to go made it 55-39 Wolfpack and pretty much, I thought, sealed SLU’s fate and its season. Then the indefatigable Jett hit a jumper, then stole the ball and laid one in to draw the Bills within a dozen.
Then Mike McCall stole the ball from Warren and hit a layup to make it a 10-point game. But N.C. State got its lead back to 14 points with 4:45 to go, and once again we figured the season was over.
There was no quit in this group, though. In the final 4:45 of regulation, Jett scored eight points and Evans and Rob Loe each scored five, with Loe and Jake Barnett nailing key three-pointers. More importantly, the Bills found their defense. They allowed just four shots from the field in the last five minutes, and N.C. State hit one of those. It was 59-45 with five minutes left, but SLU outscored the ‘Pack 25-11 to send the game to overtime.
With Evans and Barnett having fouled out, the Billiken bench turned in sterling work in overtime. Austin McBroom and John Manning hit layups, and freshman Tanner Lancona hit a key free throw to make it 82-80 with 27 seconds on the clock. Loe took over, scoring six of SLU’s 13 points in OT as the Bills won it 83-80. After scoring 45 points in the first 35:15 of the game, they scored 38 in the final 9:45 of play to win it.
This will go down as one of the best wins in program history. Jim Crews kept his team’s heads in the game, and the players didn’t give up. We talked on the radio about how much all that senior experience would mean, and it came in quite handy at the end.
Whatever happens from here on out, this win will make this season even more memorable for SLU. After their late-season slump, the Billikens didn’t give us reason to reflect on collapse. They gave us reason to remember a comeback.