Most of the time Saint Louis University plays over its head. The opposition is up there on an extension ladder, physically speaking, but the fury with which it plays defense is why it has survived to play another day in the NCAA basketball championship. Overmatched in ability but not outplayed. That's a compliment; not an indictment.
The story of the team nicknamed the Billikens has to do with resolve, determination and inspiration. They have the tenacity of a pack of wildcats that haven't been fed since the last full moon. There's no such thing as a cheap basket against Saint Louis.
It is this quality that allowed it to gain the second round of the tournament here, where the city hosting the event has no provincial interest in the contenders -- except the Billikens make you like them.
The little gray-haired coach, Charlie Spoonhour, realizes Baltimore has expressed instant affection for his players and how they go about the dire challenge of putting the handcuffs on the superior talented and taller inside shooters they go out to face. Saint Louis U., if it desires, can claim the championship of the Mississippi since it put away Minnesota, which is located at the headwaters of the great waterway, in overtime, 64-61.
In winning, it was fortunate to escape the Minnesota firing squad that had four shots in the last 13 seconds. If any of them go in, it's another overtime session coming up. But as Scott Highmark conceded when it was over, "Somebody was looking out for us. I knew they were going to come back, but I was hoping we'd be able to weather the storm."
The skipper on the bench, holding the wheel, was wondering when it was all going to end. Spoonhour had to witness the last-second assault, figuring that if the Gophers kept throwing them up, the percentages would have to work in their favor. "I just thought the clock quit on me," he quipped.
Minnesota began the afternoon by being swept off its collective feet in the Baltimore Arena. The Saint Louis outfit, lifted by one of the sweetest-sounding pep bands in the history of horn-blowing, was hotter than the unseasonable temperature outside. It opened up a 16-3 advantage and the Gophers were having a difficult time trying to deal with the reality.
Ten minutes and ten seconds of the opening half had been played before Minnesota scored from the field. Meanwhile, Saint Louis was bombing from outside.
The Billikens hit the long ball and that's another reason they are an attractive unit to watch. Saint Louis, lacking the size and bulk to go inside, has to find the range from afar if it's going to be a factor.
Minnesota battled hard, all uphill, to get back in the elimination event and finally succeeded in getting a tie, 56-56, in regulation -- with only 10 seconds remaining. It would be difficult for Saint Louis to right itself after letting a 13-point lead slip away in the second half. Disaster awaited.
All it had to show for its impressive early effort was the chance to fight for its life in the five-minute extra period. It was fading, running out of gas, and Minnesota was playing with desperate application and a new-found competence. The balance of power had gone the way of the Gophers as they asserted themselves off the boards.
Saint Louis was ready to be taken, or so it seemed. But don't underestimate the nerve and verve of this collection of undersized starters, where the tallest member of the regular unit 6-foot-6 David Robinson, who is a mighty jumper and deceptively strong when it comes to getting good position and wrestling the ball off the boards.
With two minutes to go in overtime, the Gophers had closed in at 60-58. Saint Louis seemed drained, but it reached back for extra petrol from its emergency fuel tank. One minute later it inched on top, 63-60, then 63-61, before Robinson made his second of two foul shots to end the scoring.
The Gophers had made a strong comeback, but it wasn't enough. They were to go away with a certain undeniable dignity, as Jayson Walton and Townsend Orr, both of whom had played their final game as seniors, saluted the winners. Losing coach Clem Haskins said: "Like our players were saying, Saint Louis deserved the credit. We had every opportunity at the end to win it.
"The most interesting thing about the three-point play is it gives smaller teams a chance to win games. Our hats are off to Saint Louis. It had more quickness and speed. Size is important, but so is athletic ability."
Minnesota, with an enrollment of 39,000, making it one of the largest universities in the country, figured to have a difficult time with the Jesuit school from Missouri, which came out going full-throttle and was throwing up quick shots, some faster than the blink of an eye, from long-range dimensions.
Some of them parted the net as if they were being conducted to the target on a radar beam, which meant that Saint Louis is either highly skilled with the three-point touch or else accidents have a way of repeating themselves.
Saint Louis, if there's a sentimental aspect, has attracted the support of the folks watching at this neutral site known as the Baltimore Arena (nee Civic Center). They extract every ounce of ability from themselves, which makes them easy to like and to enjoy.