COLUMBUS, Ohio -- All Kwamain Mitchell could do last season was call and console his ailing teammates while he served a suspension for violating his school’s code of conduct. But on Friday, Mitchell gave his team a necessary boost in Saint Louis' 61-54 win against Memphis -- the Billikens' first NCAA tournament win since 1998.
“That suspension gave me time to think about mistakes in life, and the opportunity here, I’m here to take it,” said Mitchell, who scored a game-high 22 points over the Tigers in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Entering the game, some were already looking ahead to a Michigan State-Memphis matchup Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
But the Billikens canceled those plans by forcing a rugged pace, and by successfully stopping an athletic Memphis team from running up and down the floor.
The game was tied at 23 at halftime, but the Billikens stuck with their strategy of controlling the tempo. By the end of the night, the Billikens had outscored Memphis on fast-break points (11-6) and recorded an 11-for-20 clip in the second half. They’d held the Tigers -- who scored 60 points or fewer for only the third time this season -- to a 2-for-15 mark from the 3-point line (38.9 percent from the field overall) and nearly matched them inside (30-28 in the paint).
But Saint Louis encountered trouble midway through the second half as the Tigers-Spartans matchup that naysayers anticipated moved toward reality. Joe Jackson hit a jump shot with 11:51 to play to complete a 13-2 run (from a 27-24 deficit to a 37-29 lead).
Saint Louis had stayed close to the Tigers with strong defense. But as the Tigers pulled away, the Billikens needed Mitchell to don his cape, even though he’d been nursing an ankle injury.
“I was telling everybody to calm down, keep your composure and get this win,” Mitchell said.
The Milwaukee native scored 10 of his 22 points during a 23-7 run. He energized the sparse Saint Louis crowd that had traveled to Columbus -- clearly outnumbered by the boisterous Memphis fans -- with deep 3-pointers.
He yelled. He shouted. He balled.
He did not have the same chance to enjoy a hero’s spoils during the 2010-11 season.
Last season, Mitchell and Willie Reed, the team’s top scorers, were suspended by the university in October 2010 following sexual assault allegations. The school reinstated Mitchell midway through the season, but the dynamic guard decided to redshirt.
It was a difficult period for Mitchell and a Billikens team that missed the NCAA tournament with a 12-19 record (6-10 Atlantic 10).
“It was very difficult. I was calling the guys, telling them to keep their composure,” Mitchell said. “Back home, you know ... it was tough, it was tough.”
Coach Rick Majerus and Mitchell’s teammates said his return this season has changed the program. He’s averaging 12.1 points and 3.8 assists per game.
“With [Mitchell] coming back, he’s such a leader on the court,” Cody Ellis said. “He tells us what to do, and everyone respects his game, everyone respects him as a person.”
As Mitchell led the Billikens back against the Tigers, his teammates weren’t surprised. He’d averaged 15.9 points per game and shot 36 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore.
Conklin said Mitchell’s toughness in the team’s win over Memphis stems from the obstacles he’s had to overcome away from the floor.
“That’s the Kwamain we missed, being able to get those clutch buckets when we need them the most,” Conklin said. “I couldn’t be more happy for him, proud of him, everything he’s gone through. He’s got a rough ankle. It’s just great to see him come out and play a great game.”
Memphis had superior length and athleticism. The Tigers had NBA prospects. But they didn’t have Majerus’ defense. And they didn’t have the 5-foot-10 Mitchell.
Mitchell, who said last season taught him to value every game, said his performance against Memphis was fueled by his desire to stay on the road. He didn’t want his comeback story to end too soon.
“You can’t take this for granted,” Mitchell said. “I came in this game knowing we had something to fight for. If you lose, you go home. So throughout the whole game, I was thinking, like, we’re not losing this.”