Saint Louis interim coach Jim Crews won't say the Billikens won this championship for the late Rick Majerus. Some things are bigger than basketball, and Crews' respect for Majerus is one of them.
Still, he sees his predecessor's imprints on all the little things his veteran players did right in beating VCU in the Atlantic 10 title game. Their hard-nosed style that left the Rams in foul trouble. Their disciplined defense. Their poise when momentum and a hostile crowd went against them.
No. 16 Saint Louis won just its second conference tournament title in school history Sunday, beating the 25th-ranked Rams 62-56. Kwamain Mitchell, whose senior season started 11 games late because of foot surgery, scored 19 points, including a huge 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down.
"Losing one of the best coaches in NCAA basketball, all those things brought us together," Mitchell said. "All those hard times, it paid off right now. I'm just excited guys stuck with it."
Top-seeded Saint Louis (27-6) led 45-32 with less than 12 minutes left; VCU was in all sorts of foul trouble. But the second-seeded Rams and their pressing defense can erase a deficit as quickly as any team in the country, and VCU (26-8) was within a point three minutes later.
"We weren't worried they were only a point behind," senior forward Cody Ellis said. "The boys did a great job of keeping their composure. It was unreal."
Ellis, who shot just 3 for 10 overall, hit a 3-pointer on the Billikens' next possession, then made another clutch 3 for a 57-51 lead with more than two minutes to go.
Saint Louis had been the best team in the Atlantic 10 all year, led by eight juniors and seniors. Crews reminded his players of how few schools win both the regular-season and conference tournament titles, and that ran through Mitchell's head all game.
Majerus died in December after being hospitalized for several months, and fans chanted his name as the players celebrated the title.
"Rick's footprint and fingerprints, his lessons, are embedded into those guys," Crews said. "His wisdom is embedded into those guys, which is pretty cool."
The Rams, meanwhile, struggled through two scoring droughts of more than five minutes in the first half. When they don't score, they can't set up their press, and Saint Louis didn't commit a turnover for a 16-minute stretch spanning both halves.
But with VCU down 13, Treveon Graham hit a 3-pointer, just the Rams' second of the day, to spark a trademark VCU run. Rob Brandenberg turned a steal into a three-point play in transition, then Briante Weber dished to Juvonte Reddic for a basket in the paint.
When Melvin Johnson, a freshman from the Bronx, made a jumper to pull the Rams within four, he pumped his fist and the crowd erupted as Saint Louis called a timeout.
It did little to calm the Billikens. Saint Louis broke the press but was still visibly flustered, and Mike McCall threw the ball to no one.
Saint Louis committed another turnover on its next possession, and Reddic's dunk in transition pulled VCU within 46-45 with less than nine minutes left.
Graham finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Reddic had 15 points and eight rebounds. But Troy Daniels, who made six 3-pointers to score 20 points in the semifinals against UMass, was held scoreless, missing all four 3-point attempts while limited by foul trouble.
The Rams shot 3 for 18 from behind the arc.
"Our whole style of play is to get the other team rattled, and I think for a stretch there we had it going the way we wanted," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "They were having trouble even getting the ball inbounds. But then they've got some older guys that stepped up, that made big shots."
Like Ellis, who calmly drained an open 3-pointer after Johnson fell down on defense. He drilled another jumper after Graham's 3 again drew the Rams within a point.
And Mitchell made that 3-pointer with Reddic, nearly a foot taller, draped on him to give Saint Louis a 54-48 lead with more than four minutes left.
There were plenty of empty seats at the Barclays Center in the A-10's first season in Brooklyn. But many who were there wore black and gold, including famous New York City basketball fan Spike Lee, who attended all three of VCU's games and was wearing a Rams jersey Sunday.
When VCU went on its run, its section had the place rocking, even booing Saint Louis cheerleaders.
The Rams were in their first season in the A-10 after winning the Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament title last year.
Saint Louis, also a relative newcomer, was making its first appearance in the A-10 title game after joining in 2005-06. Its only previous conference tournament crown came in 2000 in Conference USA.
Mitchell shot 7 of 9 from the floor. So excited for his team's prospects after Saint Louis won a game in last year's NCAA tournament, Mitchell broke his foot in the second practice of the preseason.
But "he didn't have a pity party," Crews said.
"He has been a pillar with that kind of mentality and attitude," the coach added.
Dwayne Evans scored 16 points after combining for 49 the previous two days and earned tournament MVP honors. The Billikens got to the foul line 33 times but missed 12 free throws to help VCU stick around.
"These guys off the court have had a lot of situations," Crews said. "And certainly on the floor you always have different situations. You're going to have ebb and flows. You're going to not play well. You're going to make a mistake. You're going to have a period of time where things aren't going your way, things you might not even understand off the court or on the court.
"All you can do is try to do the next right thing."