AMHERST, Mass. — Saint Louis had a lot riding on Sunday’s outcome against Massachusetts.
And with the game tied, the clock ticking down and the ball in Saint Louis guard Jordair Jett’s hands, forward Dwayne Evans had just one thing on his mind.
“We were going to win,” he said.
Evans was right.
Jett hit the game-winning layup with 4 seconds left to help the 17th-ranked Billikens snap a three-game losing streak and clinch their second straight Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season title with a gritty 64-62 win over the Minutemen.
Saint Louis (26-5, 13-3 Atlantic 10) already had wrapped up the top seed in this week’s A-10 tournament, but needed another victory in a hostile environment to send them into the postseason on a positive note.
“It definitely gives us momentum,” said Jett, who paced the Billikens with 17 points. “We needed a win desperately, and to claim the outright A-10 title back-to-back.
“So we knew what it was coming into it and we came through.”
Saint Louis surged out of the gates this season, marching to a 25-2 record behind a school-record 19-game winning streak, but struggled over the past two weeks, losing to Duquesne, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton.
Coach Jim Crews wasn’t concerned with the recent skid, only with how his team rebounded from it.
“What they’ve done is extraordinary, winning last year’s regular season and winning the A-10 conference tournament and backing it up now with this here right today outright, is certainly a credit to some guys that really have done some phenomenal things,” he said. “I think our kids did a great job of being humble and just taking things in stride when we won 19 in a row.
“So, you lose three in a row, it happens. I guess unless you’re Wichita (State), it happens,” Crews added of the Shockers, who improved to 34-0 on Sunday.
UMass (23-7, 10-6) led for most of the second half, and by four with just over two minutes remaining, before Saint Louis stormed back and stunned the home crowd hoping to send their team off to the conference tournament in style.
Instead, the Minutemen squandered a chance to earn a first-round bye and will play in the opening round Thursday.
They can thank Jett for that.
Evans scored four of his 14 points during a two-minute stretch late in the game that brought the Billikens within two, and Jett tied it with a pair of free throws with 1:32 remaining.
UMass guard Chaz Williams and Jett traded baskets to a 62-all tie, and after two missed shots by the Minutemen, the Billikens got the ball back with 36 seconds to play.
Jett held the ball as the clock wound down, eventually driving to the hoop with under 10 seconds left and hitting an acrobatic layup that put Saint Louis on top for the first time since late in the first half.
Williams, who paced the Minutemen with 20 points and nine assists, had one last heave from just over halfcourt that missed wide.
“I just told the guys we’ve got to stay together, stay the course,” Williams said. “It’s been a long time since UMass had a conference title, and that’s something we want to go out with.”
Guard Derrick Gordon chipped in with 15 points for UMass, which sizzled earlier in the season, too, cracking the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since November 1998 and rising as high as No. 13 in the country with a 16-1 start.
However, the Minutemen struggled over the past two months, finishing the season 7-6, but still seemed destined for their first NCAA tournament berth since 1998.
“We just didn’t make the right plays down the stretch,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “We had plays, normally for the most part, I’d say we’ve done a good job of making those plays at the end and winning those games.
“Today was one of those where the basketball gods weren’t with us.”
NOTES: Massachusetts is one of 10 Division I teams to start the same lineup all season. … Saint Louis is one of the few teams in the country to start five
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