By Paul Gotham
BROOKLYN, NY – VCU made its run. The St. Louis Billikens, like they have so many times this season, didn’t rattle.
Kwamain Mitchell scored 19 points and none more important than a three with the shot clock about to expire as St. Louis defeated Virginia Commonwealth University, 62-56 to claim the 2013 Atlantic 10 men’s basketball championship at the Barclays Center, Sunday afternoon.
After nearly surrendering a 13 point lead midway through the second half, the 5-10 Mitchell let fly over the outstretched hand of VCU’s 6-9 Juvonte Reddic with four seconds remaining on the shot clock.
“That whole time I just said ‘I don’t want to let my team down,” Mitchell commented. “I kind of got a little space and got it up there.”
The shot gave St. Louis a 54-48 lead, and the Bills never looked back from there.
“Probably the shot of the game,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart. “That’s a tough shot to make over Juvonte Reddic.”
Coming into the game shooting less than 30 percent behind the arc and connecting just twice in SLU’s last three games, Mitchell drilled three of his four attempts from long range on the day.
“They were sagging on me in the post the entire day,” Evans explained. “I know Cody had missed a couple, but when we need him he can make the shots. I just had feeling it was going.”
It was fitting for the two seniors to seal the victory after the furious VCU comeback.
Reddic’s steal and dunk capped a 13-1 VCU run in less than three minutes of game clock.
“We had our style going for parts of the game,” Smart noted. “We just didn’t have it going for enough of the game.”
“Our whole style of play is to get the other team rattled,” Smart continued. “For a stretch there we had it going the way we wanted. They took a punch from us. They responded, and that’s why they’re champions.”
Trailing 45-32 with less than 12 minutes remaining, Treveon Graham nailed a three to start the rally. The Rams were able to set their press, and Rob Brandenburg intercepted a pass just over half court and raced the length of the floor for a layup and foul. After the old-fashioned three-point play, the Rams trailed seven.
On the next possession, Briante Weber drove the lane and dished to Reddic for a dunk. On the ensuing inbound, Reddic stepped in the passing lane for a steal and a feed to Melvin Johnson for a jumper forcing an SLU timeout.
VCU got another stop and Reddic converted at the other end with one of two free throws. His second slam of the spurt brought on another SLU timeout.
“We just used our spirit and our style of play,” said VCU’s Darius Theus. “Helped us just to cut down the lead.”
Coming out of the huddle the Bills quieted VCU when Jordair Jett led Ellis for a three.
“We just stay composed,” Ellis said. “We had trust in each other that we could get out of the little slump that we were in and stop their run…The composure was unreal. This is a testament to how far we’ve come this season.”
Graham cut the deficit to one at 49-48 with another three, but the Bills didn’t flinch.
“They just keep doing the next right thing,” said SLU head coach Jim Crews. “Basketball is not a game of perfect, and we aren’t perfect by any stretch with things, but they just keep plugging away.”
“You’re going to have ebb and flows,” Crews continued. “You’re not going to 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, on the court or off the court. All you can try to do is do the next right thing.”
After playing a relatively quiet first 20 minutes, Evans tallied nine points after the intermission. The junior forward hit seven-of-nine from the floor and eight-of-eleven at the line to finish with 16.
“When he posts up, it’s hard to get around him,” VCU’s Graham stated. “You’ve got to fight hard to get in front, do the work early, and then when he gets it try to square up as best you can because he’s real physical with the right hand jumping up and going to the rim.”
Evans set an A10 Tournament record with 26 free throws made for the weekend. The junior forward went a combined 19-of-25 (76 percent) from the floor and 26-of-31 (83.9 percent) from the line.
“Evans was terrific all night,” Smart commented. “He’s a tough match-up. I thought our guys did a good job on him but not good enough. I don’t think it was so much our defense, it was more he’s really good.”
Mitchell paced the Billiken offense with five-of-six shooting in the first half. The senior guard dropped six of SLU’s first eight as the Bills grabbed the early lead. Mitchell pulled up in the lane tying the game two. He took a Rob Loe rebound and outlet pass and went the length of the floor for two more. After Grandy Glaze scored at the rim, Loe secured a loose ball and led Mitchell ahead of the defense for an easy layup forcing a VCU timeout.
The Rams got busy on the offensive glass tying the score at 12. Reggie Theus hit a pair from the free throw line. Treveon Graham used a spin dribble from the wing to get in the lane for two. Juvonte Reddic hit a turnaround jumper in the lane before Jarred Guest and Graham converted back-to-back rebound and putback situations.
Mitchell hit back-to-back threes as SLU regained the lead. The senior came off a down screen and took a Jordair Jett lead for a catch-and-shoot trey. He followed that taking a Cody Ellis handoff and a 28-21 SLU advantage.
Mitchell finished the tournament with 12 steals. Pepe Sanchez holds the record with 14.
Graham notched a double-double leading all scorers with 20 and all rebounders with 12.
Reddic added 15.
The Billikens earned a 4-seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Championship. They open the tournament against New Mexico St.
VCU got a 5-seed in the South bracket. The Rams start play versus Akron.