ST. LOUIS (AP) — No matter how flawless a win appears, coaches always seem to have something to quibble about. Not so much this time.
“It’s never perfect, but that was fun to watch,” interim coach Jim Crews said after No. 16 Saint Louis trounced La Salle in the second half and clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 title with a 78-54 victory on Saturday.
“Really, they kept getting better and better, and that’s unusual. That’s very unusual,” he said.
Dwayne Evans had 16 points and 17 rebounds for Saint Louis, which led by just two points at halftime and then made 17 of 20 shots. Kwamain Mitchell had 19 points and six assists on Senior Day to help the Billikens (24-6, 13-3 A-10) win their first conference title since 1970-71 in the Missouri Valley and clinch the top seed in the A-10 tournament next week in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Everyone made plays,” Mitchell said. “We kept pushing it and pushing it, and we came up with some great shots.”
Rob Loe matched his career best with 20 points, hitting all seven shots. The Billikens shot 58 percent overall, one game after shooting a season-worst 30 percent in an overtime loss at Xavier.
“I couldn’t be more pleased or proud or tickled for these guys to win a championship,” Crews said. “It’s hard to win a game, much less a championship.”
Saint Louis has won 12 of 13 under Crews, who made it a smooth transition after taking over for the late Rick Majerus with no assurances past the end of the season. The Billikens can take the title outright if VCU loses at Temple on Sunday.
Seniors Cory Remeken, Cody Ellis and Mitchell were among the first to snip the nets.
“I’m sure he’s proud right now,” Ellis, an Australian import whose parents made the trip for the last two games, said in reference to Majerus. “He’s watching this from somewhere. He’s been a big influence on this team.”
Tyrone Garland had 15 points off the bench for La Salle (21-8, 11-5). The Explorers entered the day in second place after winning seven of eight, and had been 2-0 in the Chaifetz Arena before absorbing a 24-point loss that was the school’s worst of the season.
“That was about as bad a beating as you could take in the second half,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “I’m really disappointed with the way we played. They took it to us. They won a lot of individual battles — maybe all of them in the second half.”
Ramon Galloway, who leads the Explorers with a 17.8-point average, was just 3 for 12 and had eight points.
“They did all the right stuff, they were in the right place,” Galloway said. “It was just one of those days.”
La Salle is second on the A-10 in free-throw shooting at 75 percent but missed seven of its first 10 attempts and finished 6 for 15. Plus, the team was just 2 for 15 on 3-pointers.
Saint Louis was 1 for 9 from long range in the first half. But it made its first two after the break, with Loe and Mike McCall Jr. connecting during a 10-2 run for an 11-point cushion with just under 12 minutes left. La Salle got no closer than nine points before the lead grew, and grew, and grew.
Coming off a 29-point effort in La Salle’s home finale, Galloway was a focus of the Saint Louis defense and at times forced things, making only one of nine shots in the first half. Galloway was 19 for 30 overall the previous two games, including 7 for 14 from 3-point range.
La Salle scored seven straight points to go up 27-23 with just under four minutes left in the half. After a timeout, Saint Louis pounded it inside the rest of the half with Evans, who had missed four of his first five shots, scoring the last six for a 31-29 lead that left him just two points of a double-double.
Ellis missed his first three shots, extending a two-game drought to 0 for 18, before hitting a layup late in the half.
Mills had 10 points at the half, just his third time in double figures the last seven games.