This article was originally published in the University News and at Unewsonline.com on March 20th 2019.
College basketball in March is a kind of magic. It’s the only sport that has consistent Cinderella stories where it seems that truly any team in the country has an opportunity to go on the perfect run and have a shot at glory.
This week, the Basketball Gods smiled down upon Coach Travis Ford and his Saint Louis University Billikens as they mounted an improbable tournament run all the way to an A-10 Championship, earning an automatic bid in the 2019 NCAA National Tournament. The Bills won four games in four days, upsetting three higher-seeded teams—all of whom had beaten the Billikens in A-10 regular season play.
Tramaine Isabell Jr.’s performance as the Billikens offensive force earned him the honor of “Most Outstanding Player” of the tournament, as well as a spot on the A-10 All-Tournament Team. Javon Bess joined Isabell on the All-Tournament Team. The two proved to be an unstoppable force, each averaging over 37 minutes played a game.
The Bills’ unlikely run was only made more unlikely after a loss to St. Bonaventure on the final day of the regular season. The loss forced the Bills into the sixth seed in the tournament, missing out on the direct birth in the quarterfinals they would have earned with a win. Many critics had ruled out any team that had to win four games in four days to win the tournament. The odds seemed even lower for the Bills, especially considering SLU’s habit of only playing six or seven players in a game.
The Billikens didn’t seem to care what anyone thought.
In their opening game, the only game in which they were the higher seed, they were able to escape an early-round scare from the Richmond Spiders to start the tournament. The Bills were able to push through and get their opening-round win despite trailing by as many as 11 in the second half. Hasahn French was vital as his interior presence on both ends of the floor took all focus away from other Billikens, giving them the space to mount the comeback.
A date with the Dayton Flyers was the prize the Bills earned for their win. Splitting the regular season home and away series with the three seed, not only was a semi-final berth on the line but so was the coveted “Arch Baron Cup,” the rivalry trophy awarded to the seasonal winner of the SLU-UD matchup. The issue they would now face is playing on less than 24 hours rest against a fully rested Flyers team.
Despite a poor opening half, a trend began that would become the signature feature of the Billikens tournament play. A break for the Bills came their way in the form of an injury to Dayton star, Obi Toppin. After making contact on a play under the basket with Bills forward D.J. Foreman, the first team all-conference player came up limp and left the game for the remainder of the half. When Toppin returned to the game, he was never quite the same, clearly being hampered by what looked to be an injured hip, a devastating blow to the Flyers. The Billikens locked down on defense in the second half, allowing just 25 points. That effort led to a 64-55 win, awarding the Bills the Arch Baron Cup and a rematch with the highly touted Davidson Wildcats.
It was after the Dayton game that Isabell tweeted out a simple thought that caught fire with the SLU fanbase, “Why not us?” Players all year long repeated their belief that this team was a championship-level team, however, until the Dayton win, the supporter’s belief was moderate to none. When asked about the tweet, Isabell indicated that while the words used were not discussed or said, everyone in the locker room knew exactly what kind of opportunity they had in front of them.
Social media continued to play a role in the Billikens march to glory. Just hours before the Billikens took on the Wildcats, sophomore guard Jordan Goodwin posted a picture on Instagram depicting the final moments of SLU’s loss to Davidson just two months earlier. The Billikens lost 64-63 to Davidson for their second and final loss at home on the season. In the final seconds of that game, Goodwin was fouled and given the opportunity to shoot free throws, one make sends the game to overtime, make both and they win. He missed both.
The picture made it clear that the Bills were going into their semi-final appearance looking for revenge.
Despite a rocky first 20 minutes, in the second half, the Bills came out firing, playing some of their most efficient offence of the year, holding the A-10 player of the year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and the Wildcats to just 15 points. It was their best defensive half of basketball all season. The Bills were able to close the game out and secure the revenge win over the Wildcats, 67-44.
The loss for Davidson effectively killed their NCAA tournament hopes as the one time at-large bid contenders simply couldn’t afford an upset loss to the sixth seed team. The Billikens, on the other hand, were set to take on their fourth game in four days against another team that beat them in the regular season: the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, the very team that forced them into the sixth seed just eight days earlier.
In the final, it appeared that the stroke of midnight had come just a moment too soon, and the carriage had turned back into a pumpkin. The Billikens turned the ball over three consecutive possessions to open the game and looked slow on defence and uncreative on offence. Meanwhile, St. Louis native Courtney Stockard was completely unstoppable for the Bonnies, getting open looks anytime he wanted. All considering, the nine-point deficit Saint Louis faced going into half seemed to be a blessing.
It wasn’t until the 11-minute mark of the second half that the signature Billiken defence took over and they were able to cut into the lead and get back into the ball game. The game-changing coaching decision was Ford’s choice to sub out Foreman for guard Dion Wiley. Wiley had yet to play to that point, and after missing his first three-point shot he made two later in the game, one to take the lead and the second to extend it. Wiley’s spacing gave Isabell and Bess interior space to make plays in tight to the hoop.
The Billikens were able to open up an eight-point lead down the stretch, a lead they never relinquished despite the Bonnies eventually narrowing that lead to a meagre two points. However, after St. Bonaventure missed a last-second open three, which would have won them the tournament as the buzzer sounded, the Billikens were A-10 Champions.
This is SLU’s first conference championship since 2014 and head Coach Ford’s first as a Billiken. The tournament win grants them automatic entry to the NCAA Tournament. Only two hours after the Billikens cut down the ropes in Brooklyn they were informed they would have to fly to San Jose, Calif. to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies out of the fearsome ACC.
The Billikens will look to continue their Cinderella story as they enter as massive underdogs in the 13th seed spot in the East bracket against the fourth-seeded Hokies. The current consensus odds in Las Vegas places the Billikens as 10-point underdogs, but we already know they can defy the odds.
The Billikens will be playing in the final game of the Round of 64 Friday night with a tentative start time of 9:55 p.m. CST. The game will be available for radio broadcast locally on 101.1 ESPN and streaming nationally on the Westwood One radio website. The game will also be nationally televised on TRUTV.