NEW YORK • Confetti was falling so heavily onto the court at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it obliterated the view of St. Louis University players holding high the Atlantic 10 championship trophy, as if the scene had been a mirage.
Did that really happen?
Then the image cleared, and there was Tramaine Isabell Jr., walking around with a plaque for being named outstanding player of the conference tournament. Coach Travis Ford was celebrating with university president Fred Pestello. The ever-stoic Javon Bess was smiling, almost giddy.
After dodging two potential St. Bonaventure game-winners, SLU escaped Sunday with a 55-53 win in the A-10 title game, allowing the Billikens to secure an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The sixth-seeded Billikens rallied from a big early deficit to take the lead late and held on when Nelson Kaputo missed a 3-pointer from the corner in the waning seconds.
“It’s been a long time coming to get to the NCAA Tournament after five years of practices, cuts, scars, black eyes,” said Isabell, a fifth-year senior. “We had a lot of ups and downs through the season. Guys could have quit. I could have quit. But we stayed after it.”
Sophomore Jordan Goodwin scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, and the SLU defense controlled the final 20 minutes for the second consecutive game, holding the Bonnies to 19 points.
The Billikens were given a No. 13 seed in the NCAA field and will play No. 4 Virginia Tech on Friday in San Jose, Calif. The Billikens beat the Hokies last season in a neutral site game. Four current players were involved in that game.
SLU (23-12) trailed St. Bonaventure by 13 points in the first eight minutes and saw the Bonnies’ advantage grow to as many as 15 points. They still trailed by 10 early in the second half.
The Billikens used a late 12-0 run to overtake St. Bonaventure (18-16). They didn’t lead until there were seven minutes left and then built the advantage to 54-46 with 3 minutes, 44 seconds left. The rest of the game was about trying to protect the lead.
“We made a few adjustments and I just hoped we had enough in our tank,” Ford said. “We had played three games, they had only played two. And we were the team that had to make this comeback and dig, dig, dig, dig, dig deep.”
SLU managed to win with poor offensive numbers. Bess and Isabell combined to make eight of 27 shots. The Billkens made 18 percent of their 3-pointers and were less than 50 percent from the free-throw line.
During the decisive run, SLU’s seniors made numerous big plays against a St. Bonaventure team that starts three freshmen.
Dion Wiley, who had been used sparingly in the first three tournament games, hit two 3-pointers. Bess, who also made the all-tournament team, made two shots. Isabell made his only 3 of the game. Bess will return to the NCAA Tournament after playing with Michigan State.
“I love JB. He helped me when I was at my lowest last year,” Goodwin said. “I’d do anything for him, and to see him get back to the tournament means a lot to me.”
The game was not SLU’s best of the tournament by a long shot. The Billikens were sluggish to start, possibly because of the massive minutes logged the previous three nights. They were outrebounded 42-39. They allowed the Bonnies to get off to a hot shooting start. And they missed their first 11 shots.
But things started to turn when Ford opted to stick with man-to-man defense after switching to a variety of things in the first half. St. Bonaventure shot 26 percent in the second half while senior Courtney Stockard (Jennings High) tried to keep his team close as he made six 3-pointers and scored 22 points before fouling out.
“We started out changing defenses and none of them were working except for the man-to-man,” Ford said. “So, we just stuck with that.”
After SLU built its eight-point lead, it started to slip away. When Stockard hit a 3 from the corner, St. Bonaventure was within two with 56 seconds left. But seconds later he committed his fifth foul, taking away the team’s most experienced player.
They were the last points of the game. When Kaputo misfired from the corner, Fred Thatch Jr. grabbed the rebound and the SLU reserves flew onto the court to celebrate in a pile with the players who finished the game.
“I was thinking ‘Miss it, miss it, miss it.’ It looked good from my angle,” Goodwin said. “I don’t know how he got open. But when he missed I just ran. I don’t know where I was going. I just ran.”
The game was a matchup of two teams that had relied little on their benches in the tournament. However, SLU needed three wins to reach the final while St. Bonaventure needed two, having earned a double-bye by finishing in fourth place.
The biggest difference in the teams was experience. The Billikens started three seniors and the Bonnies started three freshmen.
SLU’s season has been full of twists and turns, which started three days before the start of practice when forward Luis Santos was suspended indefinitely and opted to withdraw from the university. Then freshman Carte’Are Gordon suddenly left the team, followed by freshman Ingvi Gudmundsson.
The Billikens put together a solid nonconference record and started the A-10 5-0 but quickly fell on hard times. A four-game losing streak was soon followed by a 30-point loss at St. Joseph’s.
Bess, who had entered the league player-of-the-year conversation, began to be impacted by an injured ankle. But as his production waned, Isabell emerged suddenly as a significant offensive threat, helping the Billikens win five of six entering the championship game.
“We went through a lot this season — off-the-court stuff that we kept in-house,” Wiley said. “I think we just overcame. We stayed together as a family and believed the whole time. Even when we lost to St. Bonaventure last weekend, we knew we could win the tournament with the bracket we had.”
SLU did it despite another poor free-throw shooting performance. The door was left open for the Bonnies when Bess twice missed the front end of one-and-ones in the last 90 seconds.
Besides the last missed 3, St. Bonaventure missed a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left and a layup with 16 seconds.
“I think the basketball gods were with us,” Isabell said. “They got about three open looks. You don’t really want to live like that, but sometimes that’s basketball. I’m just happy they all rimmed out.”