With 9:26 left in his team’s night Steve Alford apparently had seen enough and official Tracy Woodson definitely had heard enough. With a flurry of forceful, then explicit language inspired by another of his team’s broken-down possessions, Alford received two technical fouls quicker than one could utter “Coach Bob.”
And with that Alford was prematurely exiled to his locker room for the first time in a 22-year coaching career, and his New Mexico Lobos were left to the play out a 20-point deficit.
Make no mistake: Alford’s eviction had more to do with what he had seen in the game’s first 30 minutes than in the give-and-take over a single fractured possession.
St. Louis U. may have played better defense than what it offered a Chaifetz Arena New Year’s Eve crowd of 6,782, but the moment hadn’t occurred this year.
On the brink of conference play, the Billikens took a gifted opponent out of its offense and stripped it of composure. They shook and stirred, allowing meager 31.8 percent shooting on 14 field goals from a team fresh off an upset over Cincinnati. “They simply out-toughed us,” said Lobos center Alex Kirk. “They were all over the place. We didn’t take care of the ball.”
The Billikens most definitely took care of the Lobos in a game that reserve forward Cody Ellis described as “redemption” for last season’s Dec. 31 beatdown at The Pit in Albuquerque. The Bills allowed five first-half field goals while forcing 16 turnovers. Still waiting on point guard Kwamain Mitchell to find form, SLU refused the visitors a second wind.
Hard to believe 25 years have passed since Alford functioned as on-court maestro for the last of Bob Knight’s three national championship teams at Indiana. Alford, now 48, never smiled Monday. He simmered early, twice used first-half timeouts in an attempt to revive his confused team and frequently stood with arms crossed while interim Billikens coach Jim Crews ran a defensive clinic.
“We had 16 turnovers and 13 points,” Alford said, describing a first half the Billikens completely dominated, 33-13. “I don’t know if that’s ever happened to one of our teams. It was a brutal first half for us and I give St. Louis all the credit.”
The Billikens, 8-3 in Mitchell’s absence, had run their winning streak to six games with him against overmatched Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. SLU entered Monday having won its previous four games by 97 points combined — each beating administered by at least 21 points. If Monday was to be the first indication of what a whole St. Louis U. team could do against a viable opponent, it strongly suggested that the Billikens are ready to see the Atlantic 10.
Alford’s Lobos supposedly offered a different animal. They were 13-1 with wins over Davidson, Connecticut, USC and most recently at Cincinnati. Only a five-point loss to South Dakota State represented a blemish. New Mexico’s glaring weakness was marksmanship. A .419 percentage from the floor ranked 231st in Division I. Their strengths included a strong floor game that placed them among the top 70 in assist-turnover ratio. (The Lobos finished with nine assists to 21 turnovers.)
The Billikens spent the first half turning the Lobos’ offense upside down with relentless man defense. When New Mexico opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, it left the Billikens trailing for the first time in four games. When the Lobos next scored, SLU had run off 12 consecutive points that included a 3-pointer and an off-the-dribble power move from their 6-foot-11 jump shooter, Rob Loe.
Alford twice exhausted timeouts to stanch his team’s bleeding offense. Neither worked because SLU never let down its claustrophobic pressure.
New Mexico endured one 4:35 stretch when it not only failed to score, it failed to get off a shot.
Fifteen of their first 28 possessions resulted in a turnover. Drawing iron became its own reward.
SLU’s 20-point halftime lead came on 14-of-31 shooting that included Mitchell’s uncomfortable 0 for six.
Minus Mitchell, the Billikens shot 56 percent for the half. Conversely, without guard Kendall Williams the Lobos were left at two for 13 (15.4 percent).
At his best Mitchell provides a sliver of jazz within SLU’s deliberate, at times laborious offense. At his best he is capable of salvaging a broken-down possession with a nifty piece of improvisation, whether a quick entry pass, a kick-out or a dart to the basket. But this was only his second game appearance since suffering a broken bone in his left foot. His shot still retains edges and he encountered difficulty finishing more than one drive. Defensively, Mitchell served as a capable co-conspirator as SLU hurried, hassled and generally disrupted the visitors’ flow.
Crews insisted that he would exercise patience with a player who ended Monday with five points, six rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes.
“Let’s don’t play Kwam’ on the reputation of what he is,” Crews said. “Let’s play him based on what’s going on.”
While waiting on Mitchell, Crews found more from forward Cory Remekun, who contributed a career-high 15 points and three blocked shots in 33 minutes.
It can be difficult to divine meaning from December basketball. But SLU finished the month 7-0 following a 3-3 November colored by a home loss to Santa Clara, a 14-point loss to Kansas and a setback at Washington. There was also a neutral court blowout over Texas A&M. Now only a Friday home tilt against Savannah State separates SLU from the Atlantic 10.
“The season is a long season,” said Crews. “You play 30 games and at the end they’re going to decide if you’re a good team or not a good team. I know it’s a coaching cliché to take it one game at time. But it’s not the mountain when you have a big game and it’s not in the valley when you lose a game.”
Alford, having reminded those listening of his team’s top 20 strength of schedule and top 10 RPI, would love to agree.