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Saint Louis, VCU Advance to Atlantic 10 Final on Sunday | The Catch and Shoot

Saint Louis, VCU Advance to Atlantic 10 Final on Sunday

The Atlantic 10 championship game is set for Sunday afternoon, and it’s going to be a good one.

In the first semifinal on Saturday, No. 1 seed Saint Louis advanced to the title game for the first time by defeating the Butler Bulldogs. Later in the afternoon, No. 2 seed Virginia Commonwealth knocked off Massachusetts. When the Billikens and the Rams face each other tomorrow, it will be the first Atlantic 10 title game appearance for both teams.

Both teams had very difficult matchups in the semifinals, despite being the higher seeds.

Saint Louis had defeated Butler twice during the regular season, but in the more recent matchup Butler outplayed the Billikens for about 30 minutes until the Billikens made a late comeback.

On Saturday, Butler lept out to a 24-17 lead in the first half, but Saint Louis finished on a 10-2 run over the final 5:20 of the period to take a 27-25 lead into halftime. Right around the midway point of the second half, the Billikens’ defense became impenetrable  and they began to open up their lead. By the five-minute mark, the lead was into double digits. Their lead grew to as many as 17 on Kwamain Mitchell’s breakaway dunk with one minute remaining, but Butler made a few buckets in garbage time to cut the final disparity to 11 points at 67-56.

“I thought our guys made some great adjustments in the second half,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “The second half we did a better job competing for shots.” Crews credited his team’s maturity, intelligence, and understanding of the game of basketball. “These guys have tremendous wisdom, and that doesn’t show up in stats…A lot of times I just say, ‘What do you guys want to run?’ or ‘How do you want to play that?’ They understand situations. It’s a real luxury, and it’s a fun thing from my standpoint.”

The Billikens were once again led by Dwayne Evans, who will probably be named the tournament’s MVP if they beat Virginia Commonwealth tomorrow. Evans scored 24 points on 7-of-10 shooting in addition to grabbing 11 rebounds and three steals for his fourth double-double in his last six games. In two Atlantic 10 tournament games, he is averaging 24.5 points and 10 boards while shooting 15-of-19 from the field and 18-of-20 from the foul line.

“He’s a really smart player,” Saint Louis senior Cody Ellis said about Evans. “He knows how to get position. He’s really good at sealing his man. When he gets it in there, he’s really slow, really controlled. He’s a really good finisher down there.”

Roosevelt Jones, who was assigned to Evans on defense as Butler’s best defender, said, “He’s probably the most physical player I’ve ever played against in my life. I really thought he should have been Player of the Year in the conference.”

“Rose doesn’t get out-physicaled often,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said. “If you can post and score on Rose, you’re a player.”

Ellis, one of Saint Louis’ sharpshooters and the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year, returned to form after struggling recently. He posted 13 points and made four three-pointers after shooting 1-of-21 from deep in the previous three games.

“It’s been a struggle the last couple of games with my shot, but you’ve got to have that shooter’s mentality: The next one is going in,” he said.

Following Saint Louis and Butler’s grind-it-out type of game, Virginia Commonwealth and Massachusetts played in a fast-paced game that roused the fans at the Barclays Center.

UMass did a great job of handling VCU’s “Havoc” defense during the first 10 minutes. In that stretch, the Minutemen had only two turnovers and built a 20-11 lead by making eight of their first 13 shot attempts. However, they turned the ball over 22 times during the final 30 minutes and shot only 30% from the field the ret of the way.

“We got enough stops in the second half, holding them to 28 points,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart.

The Rams opened up a 54-44 lead midway through the second period, but UMass climbed back within two points. Trailing by four in the final two minutes, the Minutemen desperately needed a stop, and they seemed on their way to getting one as Rob Brandenberg had the ball in the corner with UMass point guard Chaz Williams draped all over him and the shot clock running low. Rising over the smaller Williams, Brandenberg threw up a desperation three-pointer that found the bottom of the net, putting VCU ahead, 68-61. The Rams would win, 71-62.

“That was a dagger,” Smart said. “We chart shot quality, and after every game we look at each possession and whether we got a great shot, a good shot, a decent shot or a bad shot. That was one of our worst shot-quality shots of the game. But he had to take it.” Smart continued, “It’s ironic because we missed a lot of wide-open, easy shots during the game, and that was the play that kind of put it out of reach.”

Troy Daniels led VCU with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including six three-pointers. With VCU still trailing by eight points late in the first half, Daniels knocked down three-pointers on three consecutive possessions to put the Rams ahead.

“That was a big momentum swinger,” said sophomore guard Briante Weber. “Once he hit the first one, we knew we were going back to him.”

Weber provided a huge boost off the bench with 11 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals.

“This guy right here with the headband [a.k.a. Weber] is Mr. Havoc,” Daniels said of his teammate.

Williams finished off his impressive Atlantic 10 tournament performance with 18 points, four assists and two steals for the Minutemen.

The Atlantic 10 championship game between VCU and Saint Louis, two of the better defensive teams in the nation, will take place on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET.

Other notes from the Atlantic 10 semifinals:

—Jim Crews’ response when asked if Saint Louis was outgrowing the mid-major label: “I really never worried about what people called things. It just doesn’t make any difference. That’s not why you play the game. You play the game because you love the game, you have a passion for the game. You play it, no matter who you play.”

—Crews on playing in Brooklyn: “I was really excited when the A-10 went to [the Barclays Center]. When I was in school, one of the big, big thrills was playing in New York City.”

—Dwayne Evans on Saint Louis’ dominance during the second half of the season: “We have a lot of experienced guys. Guys who have been here three or four years and have been through the good and the bad…I think that wisdom is one of the things that has made us successful towards the end of the year that we didn’t really have in the beginning of the year.”

—Brad Stevens on Saint Louis’ depth: “They’ve got eight guys that are all strong, big, physical, tough, smart, skilled basketball players…Cody Ellis and Jordair Jett are two of their best players, and they’re not even in their starting lineup.”

—Stevens on completing his first season in the Atlantic 10: “This was a heck of a challenging year. This is a heck of a league. To win 13 games in this league and to win 7 away from home against the teams we had to beat. You go to St. Joe’s and Dayton to open it up, you go to VCU, you’ve got to go to Saint Louis, you’ve got to go to La Salle, you’ve got to go to UMass. And only Saint Louis comes back to you, which, by the way, you don’t really want them to come back.”

—Rotnei Clarke, Butler’s leading scorer, on being bounced from the Atlantic 10 tourney: “We’re stressing putting this behind us and getting ready for the one that really matters. We obviously wanted to win the A-10 tournament, but we want to make a run into [the NCAA tournament] more.”

—Briante Weber on guarding Chaz Williams: “It’s pretty tough since he’s smaller and quicker than everybody. He’s lower to the ground.”

—Derek Kellogg on UMass’ tournament chances: “The question is, ‘Do we pass the eye test?’. You can take the BPI, the RPI, the CPI—whatever you want to call it. We’ve played 18 games away from the Mullins Center, which a lot of BCS teams won’t do. At this point in the season, I’d say we’re a NCAA tournament team. Does that mean we get in? I’m not sure, but I hope we do.”

—Chaz Williams on UMass as a NCAA tournament team: “God was on [VCU’s] side today. Hopefully He’s on our side tomorrow on Selection Sunday, and hopefully we get in…We fight. We’re a very exciting team. Everybody across the world would want to see us play. We feel like all we need is the opportunity. Once we get our feet wet, the sky is the limit from there.”

Author: Jesse Kramer

Jesse Kramer is the founder of The Catch and Shoot. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has had work featured on SI.com, College Insider, The Comeback/Awful Announcing, and 247Sports.

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