St. Louis wins 2013 Atlantic 10 Championship

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Saint Louis Billikens are no strangers to adversity. But less than four months after the passing of former head coach Rick Majerus, this relentless mid-major is headed to the NCAA Tournament with a conference title.

It's the story movies are made from. A team picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 at the start of the year, despite never having made a conference title game, wins the championship after the passing of their former head coach.

The No. 16 Saint Louis Billikens, who lost head coach Rick Majerus on Dec. 1, capped a magical three-day run through Brooklyn with a 62-56 win over the No. 25 VCU Rams to clinch an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament and their first-ever Atlantic 10 crown.

From the start, this one looked like it belonged to Saint Louis.

The Billikens led 11-2 before the crowd could even settle in, and appeared ready to roll in their first game against a ranked team in almost a month.

Kwamain Mitchell had six of those first 11 points en route to 19 for the game. Meanwhile on the other end of the court, the Rams started just 1-8 from the field, preventing them from setting up their trademark full-court press.

But when the Rams finally started hitting shots, the press made an immediate impact. When Juvonte Reddic hit a jumper to cut the Billikens' lead to 12-8, Briante Weber came up with a steal in the backcourt and Jarred Guest converted on a layup to make it a two-point game.

From there, the Billikens settled down. And despite turning the ball over eight times in the first half -- the same number of turnovers they had in total when they beat VCU in February -- Saint Louis forced the Rams into coughing it up ten times.

Saint Louis led 29-21 at halftime and had held VCU to just 29 percent shooting.

Not much changed to start the second half. The Rams continued to struggle on offense as Saint Louis continued to stifle them in the half-court. Leading scorer Treveon Graham shot just 6-16 all afternoon, though he still scored 20 points.

But the team that had overcome so much this season had one last obstacle to conquer: the VCU press, which struck yet again.

Steals, baskets and more steals closed the gap from 11 to just four in less than three minutes midway through the second half. That lead shrunk to one a few minutes later on another steal and a dunk from Reddic.

In need of a boost, and more importantly, a leader, Cody Ellis stepped up. His first field goal of the game came on a crowd-silencing three to push the lead back to four just before the under-eight media timeout. His second field goal came after the timeout and answered a three from Graham.

VCU was never able to finish off the comeback. When time ran out, Saint Louis held on for the win. Dwayne Evans, who will likely find himself on the All-Tournament team, had 16 points and eight rebounds.

Both Saint Louis and VCU are NCAA Tournament-bound, but the Billikens get to go off three wins in as many days in a tournament that could potentially send five teams to the dance. Their seeding and matchup is still to be determined, but they'll worry about that later on tonight. For now, they get to enjoy cutting down the nets.

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