COLUMBUS, Ohio — At 64, Rick Majerus can’t stay up all night dissecting game film of upcoming opponents any more. And given his history of heart problems, his news conferences invariably include references to his daily regimen of medications and his “jelly-belly” physique, as he puts it Friday.
But in his first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003, Majerus demonstrated that he hasn’t forgotten how to win, directing No. 9 Saint Louis to a 61-54 win over eighth-seeded Memphis in the West Region.
With it, Saint Louis (26-7) advanced to a Sunday meeting against No. 1 seed Michigan State.
Now 11-1 in round-of-64 NCAA tournament contests, Majerus, who led Utah to the championship game in 1998, was quick to point out that players win games, not coaches.
And the Saint Louis player who carried the offensive load was junior guard Kwamain Mitchell, who scored a game-high 22 points — including a pair of clutch three-pointers in the second half that helped the Billikens overcome an eight-point deficit.
Once out front, Saint Louis kept the defensive pressure on, forcing Memphis into bad shots, and made their free throws to seal the upset. Senior forward Brian Conklin scored 10 of his 16 points at the free throw line, converting all but one of his attempts.
The defeat ended an erratic season for talent-laden Memphis (26-9), which got off to a 6-5 start but closed by winning 20 of 23, including the Conference USA championship, before Friday’s loss. The turnaround was due in part to get-tough measures by Coach Josh Pastner, who stripped players’ names from their jerseys and denied them hot meals — ordering up ham-and-cheese sandwiches on white bread instead — following a selfish display of showboating in a mid-February loss to Texas-El Paso.
Their jerseys were still lacking names when the Tigers took the court at Nationwide Arena on Friday.
It was a hard-fought game from the outset, with neither team leading by more than three in the first half. Mitchell banked a three-pointer for Saint Louis to draw the teams even at 23 each at the break.
Trailing 27-24, Memphis scored nine unanswered points.
Saint Louis forward Rob Loe hit from long range to pull the Billikens within two, 40-38, and Mitchell drilled a three-pointer on an inbounds play to retake the lead for Saint Louis. He hit again with less than five minutes remaining.
Majerus motioned for calm on subsequent offensive possessions, while his Billkens denied Memphis sophomore Will Barton a clear path to the basket.
It was a crushing defeat for Barton, the team’s leading scorer from Baltimore, who shouldered far too much of the blame and wept while trying to explain what went wrong.
“We definitely got away from what got us here, [by] taking quick shots. Most of that came from me,” said Barton, who led Memphis with 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting. No other Memphis player cracked double digits.
“I take all the blame for it. It’s tough to go out like this when you really beat yourself. I let my team down, was playing selfish and not doing what got us here.”
Memphis had just four assists on its 21 baskets and hit just two of its 15 attempts from three-point range.
Said Pastner: “We are a great basketball team when we make the extra pass, and we are just a solid team when we don’t make the extra pass.”