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NCAA tournament 2013: St. Louis clinches berth with Atlantic 10 win

Kwamain Mitchell and the Billikens grew up fast after the death of Rick Majerus. (Seth Wenig / AP)

The St. Louis University Billikens earned an NCAA tournament berth by beating Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament Sunday, but it was hard not to think about the coach who wasn’t present.

Rick Majerus, a fixture every March for years and most recently the Bills’ coach, died last December and the kids who are playing this spring are the ones he recruited and mentored and coached. On this team’s Senior Day last week, the New York Times’ Greg Bishop wrote of the “Rick Ma-jer-us! Rick Ma-jer-us! chants:”

The seniors knew Majerus best. He traveled the world in search of their commitments, taught them the game that he called “ball,” molded them into cornerstones of the first St. Louis University men’s basketball team to win an outright regular-season conference title since the 1956-57 season, a milestone the Billikens achieved last weekend.

Saturday was their senior day, nostalgia day, made all the more sentimental for the absence of Majerus. They learned of the death of Majerus after the first December practice, carried the coffin at his funeral and honored his legacy by securing the No. 1 seed in this week’s Atlantic 10 tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They think of him when they eat Italian food or execute perfect backdoor cuts. They remember the laughter, the perpetual food stains, the presence.

It feels as if he is still around. The spirit of St. Louis.

As senior day ended, “Sweet Caroline” played over the arena loudspeakers — “Good times never seemed so good. So good! So good! So good!” — and the seniors addressed the crowd.

“For you, Coach,” guard Kwamain Mitchell said as he pointed skyward.

On Sunday in the Atlantic 10 title game in the Barclays Center, the Bills held off a patented charge from Virginia Commonwealth, with Mitchell and, another senior, Cody Ellis, leading St. Louis to a 62-56 victory and automatic NCAA berth.

Jim Crews is Majerus’s replacement, at least for the time being, and has coached the Bills to a 27-6 record. Majerus won 516 games over 25 years and took utah to the 1998 Final Four — in all, he took 12 teams to the tournament. But there’s no commitment yet to Crews, the New York Daily News’ Dick Weiss writes.

We’ll see if a late-March run might change that.

Follow @CindyBoren on Twitter and on Facebook.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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