The possible outcomes were extremely different when St. Louis University took the court for its final regular-season game Monday night. Even the best-case scenario was not what the Billikens had in mind in November.
Like last season, SLU had a chance to capture a double bye for the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament on the final day. The Billikens, who were picked in the preseason to finish second, also faced the possibility of sliding as far as ninth place with a loss.
The Billikens did their part by finishing a dominant season at Chaifetz Arena with a 78-57 win over Massachusetts on senior night. They received some help when St. Joseph’s won at Richmond, launching SLU into fourth place to earn a double bye for the league tourney.
SLU celebrated the careers of Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and walk-on Joshua Hightower with a ceremony in front of about 800 fans after Goodwin finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in his final home game and French contributed 12 points.
“I was thinking a lot of different thoughts, even all day today,” coach Travis Ford said of his two four-year starters. “We’ve been through a lot together. These young men are like sons to me. I’ve got a lot of respect for them and appreciate them believing in us before they even knew us.”
SLU never trailed, opening an 11-point lead at halftime and then using a 13-0 run midway through the second half to extend the advantage to 22 points.
The Billikens (13-5 overall, 6-4 in the A-10), have won their last two games by trying to re-discover the stingy defense that has come and gone throughout the season. They forced 17 turnovers and held UMass to 42% shooting.
“The last few games we’ve been making it personal,” Goodwin said of the defense. “In our team meetings, we talk about certain guys who shouldn’t get scored on. I think it will enhance itself in the tournament because we’re playing for something. Every game could be my last.”
SLU is in a precarious position in terms of reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Billikens have positioned themselves to need three wins in the A-10 tourney to win it and gain the league’s automatic bid.
They’d prefer not to leave it to the selection committee by losing in Richmond, Virginia, where the first four rounds will be played starting with play-in games Wednesday. SLU does not play until Friday, in the quarterfinals.
“It would mean everything to me and Jordan,” French said of the NCAA Tournament. “We’re both fighters. We come from a place you had to fight for everything. We won’t back down or give up easy.”
SLU and UMass had two games postponed early in the conference season because of the Billikens’ COVID-19 outbreak. The rescheduled game was an oddity, coming on the Monday before the start of the A-10 tournament, which also was re-scheduled.
The final conference standings were determined by winning percentage. So even though SLU played 10 games while others played as many as 16, it was enough to get into fourth place.
Ford, however, wasn’t particularly interested in that aspect. He said he has tried to ignore standings and NCAA tourney predictions in the last week to put full energy into improving his team.
“I didn’t really care, to be honest,” he said. “It didn’t matter to me. All I cared about was trying to figure out getting a win. At this point, that’s all we need to worry about. I guess it’s good we finished fourth after all we’ve been through. Good grief.”
Javonte Perkins, who scored 16 points, started the decisive run by completing a three-point play and following with a short jumper. Fred Thatch Jr. then hit a corner 3-pointer and produced his second steal and breakaway dunk of the game.
When French backed Tre Mitchell under the basket and scored on consecutive possessions, the Billikens were rolling.
“We weren’t real happy with our defense after the VCU game,” Ford said. “There were some tweaks and adjustments and a lot of film work that helped. Tonight was really good, especially against a team that has proven it can score like UMass has.”
Photos: Billikens beat Minutemen, celebrate seniors
Saint Louis University triumphed over the University of Massachusetts Minutemen 78-57 in the Billikens' last game of the regular season at home in Chaifetz Arena on March 1, 2021. The Billikens also celebrated the three seniors on their team: guard Jordan Goodwin, guard Joshua Hightower and forward Hasahn French.