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SLU 76, Virginia Commonwealth 62

A student stripped down to a pair of blue shorts to distract a VCU Traveon Graham (21) on the free throw line in second half action during a game between St. Louis U. and Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. Graham missed both free throws. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

One word: Beautiful.

All of it.

It was the way St. Louis U. played pitiless defense to take away Shaka’s smarts, and VCU’s composure. It was just the way the brainy SLU players calmly took an extinguisher to VCU’s heralded full-court pressure defense, defusing the fire trap that was supposed to turn the basketball into a ball of flames and cause the Billikens to combust in turnovers.

It was just the way SLU took care of the basketball with precision and care, redirecting the flow, finding the open man and choosing their shots with a trained eye of a gem cutter.

It was the way that SLU’s players grew stronger during rare moments of anxiety, when it was time to make an honest stand on defense, patiently work for a high-percentage shot or make a subtle but devastating play that would tamp down VCU’s rising enthusiasm.

It was beautiful, the way the St. Louis players took the floor at Chaifetz Arena on Tuesday night to demolish No. 24 Virginia Commonwealth 76-62  in a performance that presented a generous offering of the qualities instilled in them by the late Rick Majerus.

The Billikens were intelligent, unselfish, focused, creative, tough and fundamentally exact. They mastered the art of basketball. They moved the classroom to the hardwood. They were mentally prepared for anything that VCU threw at them. They played nastier defense than the Rev. Lawrence Biondi.

SLU rolled to its eighth consecutive victory, rudely taking over first place in the A-10 Conference. As the home team continued to put VCU through a clinic, the lead escalated to 26 points with 5:58 left in the game. By that stage VCU’s wealthy coach, Shaka Smart, had spent more time instructing the officials than his own players.

For all of the hype about VCU’s defense, SLU won the standoff.

SLU had the superior defense.

Not. Even. Close.

VCU’s defense was left in tatters after the Billikens made 55 percent of their shots.

This was a shredding.

The scene at Chaifetz on Tuesday was all that you hoped it would be, and I am talking about the dreamers who dared to think big, believing that SLU basketball could ascend to a higher level, guided there by a coach who showed up, shook the place up and went on a mission to raise the standards — and, he hoped, a chronically undernourished hoops program.

The scene at Chaifetz is exactly what the late Rick Majerus envisioned.

There was a special guest in the house Tuesday, seated a couple of rows behind the SLU bench. Angie Kvidera was there. She was smiling. She was happy. She was brimming with pride.

Angie was Majerus’ longtime girlfriend, and you have to understand how much she loves watching this team. She loves seeing the Billikens play the game as the late coach taught them to. She knows — we all know — that Rick lives on through these SLU players.

“It was hard to see the team run out before the start of the game, and not see Rick there,” Kvidera said. “But these players are really special, and I’m just thrilled by how they’re playing. Rick loved them so much.”

The Billikens, you see, are coached by two men.

One can only be there in spirit, and through the teaching that made a lasting impact. The memories of all things Majerus are still fresh and raw, as are the emotions.

And then – thankfully – there is Jim Crews.

Is there anyone doing a better coaching job in college basketball than Crews right now? He is there to faithfully reinforce the Majerus principles on a daily basis. Crews, handpicked by Majerus, was Rick’s final gift to his players. And Crews is absolutely delivering the coaching performance of his career as he moves the Billikens further down the path set by Majerus.

Given the circumstances, it’s hard to envision how Crews and the players could have handled an excruciating transition better than they have. But this is the family that Rick Majerus never really had. This is truly inspirational to see this team, and Jim Crews, bond in a way that goes way beyond sport, way past the scoreboard where winners and losers are decided by the numbers.

The ugly business of big-time college basketball kicked Jim Crews around, knocked him down, and kicked him again. He had walked away, and then his pal Majerus called him back. Called Crews back … to his true calling, the coaching life. And Jim Crews enjoys going to work every day, because the truth is you won’t find many, if any, teams that can give a coach a happy existence the way SLU does.

“They’re great,” Crews said. “I like them because they’ve had their eyes on the stars and they’ve got their feet on the ground. They’re humble. Which is fun to be around. They do a good job of listening and sustaining things in practice. You can tell them something they don’t like, and they’re pretty mature about that. And that’s been fun.

“I’ve been around the block more than a few times. And seeing young people when they take an opportunity and make it a really good accomplishment under really very, very unique situations. Some of it bad luck, and some of it tragic. They’re getting a lot of life lessons. And I think college athletics should always be life lessons. And there’s been some real life lessons here.”

It’s simply beautiful.

All of them.

All of this.

“Rick would be so proud of the players, and what we saw tonight,” Angie Kvidera said.

Angie took in the magical scene in front of her as the game ended, with players celebrating, the band playing, the fans joyous, the family all together as one, and a place that is still filled with the warmth and the glow of the beloved late coach’s living dream.

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