CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A 5-0 start for the Saint Louis University Billikens seemed a foregone conclusion when the schedule was released. However, through 15 minutes of Saturday's game, those plans were under serious threat.
Down 32-19 with 5:03 remaining in the first half, SLU finished the half on an 18-4 run. That momentum ultimately propelled it to a 76-67 win over a pesky SIU-Carbondale bunch at SIU Arena.
"Nothing was easy tonight," SLU head coach Jim Crews said. "They made it very difficult for us. What I was really pleased with was – it wasn't easy and things weren't going well, but we just kind of hung in there."
The Salukis came out firing and perhaps it was a factor of SLU giving them too much room.
"I thought we were giving them too much space from a defensive standpoint," he said. "We took that space away the last five minutes. Our defense was able to knock some things loose and score."
A discombobulated possession ended in a three-pointer by Jake Barnett with five seconds left on the shot clock, then Jordair Jett had a thief and score, and Dwayne Evans headed to the free throw line. Quickly a 13-point lead was down to seven and the Billikens continued to pour it on. Austin McBroom's 16-foot jumper as time ran out gave SLU the one-point halftime lead.
Barnett's three triples in the first half set the tone for things to come by McCall Jr. and others over the course of the rest of the game.
"Huge, huge," Crews said. "His reputation is he's a really good shooter but he's never played in two years because he's a shooter. He doesn't shoot himself in or out of the lineup."
With two fouls on virtually every key player for the Billikens midway through the first 20 minutes, they were forced to hunker down and play defense without more damage.
"We don't really have a rule where two fouls and you're out," he said. "We kind of read the situation."
After successfully navigating the rough waters of the initial 20 minutes, Mike McCall Jr. led the Billikens in the second half with 14 points – none bigger than an 18-foot jumpshot when the Salukis closed within one.
"I think that's one of our strengths," Crews said of the team's senior leadership. "Whether it's a game or a half or a five-minute segment."
The zone defense that originally had the Bills rattled couldn't seem to find an answer for the heady Billikens' guard.
"I think we got sped up a bit," McCall Jr. said. "We weren't aggressive and we were doing things on our own. I thought we picked it up. We started executed and playing defense."
Tying a career-high 19 points and a career-high nine rebounds, McCall Jr. didn't want to let a valiant Saluki comeback come to fruition.
"Coach said it was going to be a 15-round game," he said. "They keep attacking. They don't take plays off. . .their coach kept telling them ‘drive, drive, drive'. They just kept coming at us."
With senior star Dwayne Evans struggling for most of the night, Barnett and McCall Jr. showed the moxie that the Billikens need to see moving forward with the season."
"That was an unbelievably great week for us," Crews said. "To get two games on the road and win two games. It's tough."
As Barnett said postgame, each game is just one piece of the puzzle and the Bills are sixty percent of the way to their 5-0 expectation.
NEXT UP: Saint Louis returns back home to face Oral Roberts at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 21 at Chaifetz Arena.