St. Louis, Mo. – Ugly. Sloppy. Win.
Those three words summed up Friday evening at Chaifetz Arena as Saint Louis (11-3) narrowly escaped Savannah State 67-59, and registered its eighth straight win in the process.
An aggressive Tigers' defense forced SLU into frantic scenarios all night long, but impressive free throw shooting down the stretch sealed the deal for the Billikens.
"We got very tentative against them," interim head coach Jim Crews said. "They change defenses, but not only do they change defenses, they change the looks. . .They're really active with their hands, they're very competitive and they come at you."
Playing in its first game in 2013, SLU struggled to shake a New Year's hangover in the wake of a signature win over No. 20 New Mexico. A 36-20 advantage for the visiting Tigers on the boards nearly allowed them to complete the upset, but 19 turnovers made it virtually impossible to overcome. Nonetheless, Savannah State's ball pressure and forceful rebounding kept the game much closer than many would've imagined.
"It was different," senior Cody Ellis said of the unorthodox looks from the Tigers. "They were really scrappy. Really good at the way they played. It really got to us."
"We just have to calm down and play our game," senior Cory Remekun said.
Junior guard Mike McCall Jr. led the way with 17 points, and Ellis, Kwamain Mitchell, and Remekun all chipped in with double-figure performances.
The Billikens roared out to a 12-2 lead in the first five minutes, but the Tigers remained close heading into the locker room at halftime down just 33-25.
After SLU claimed its largest lead of the night at 46-34 behind a three-pointer from junior guard Jordair Jett with 13:22 left to go, it went without a field goal for nearly minutes as Savannah St. pulled ahead 51-50 with 6:00 remaining. The deficit, SLU's first since North Texas on Dec. 5, was short-lived as Remekun responded with a bucket of his own to put the Billikens on top for good.
With tonight's crisis averted, SLU now sets its sights on Atlantic 10 Conference play. The Billikens begin Thursday at home against Massachusetts, yet another quick and aggressive opponent.
"They made us look silly at their place last year," Ellis said of the 72-59 drubbing in Amherst. "We have some redemption for them guys."
Although it wasn't pretty, SLU began 2013 with a victory and hopes there is much more to come as the quest for March takes shape.