Memphis can't overcome cold shooting vs Saint Lou
By RUSTY MILLER
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Will Barton led Memphis to the NCAA tournament and then took the blame for the Tigers falling out of it.
Moments after a 61-54 loss to Saint Louis in the second round of the West Regional on Friday night, Barton broke down. He shook his head, buried his face in his hands and wiped away tears.
"I was selfish, man," the 6-foot-6 sophomore guard said while trying to compose himself. "I'll never forget this game. I let my team down."
It would be hard to pin much blame on the Tigers' leading scorer. Averaging 18.1 points per game, he scored 16 and had a decent shooting night against a grueling defense while playing 38 tough minutes on college basketball's brightest stage.
Yet there he was, on the podium in the media room at Nationwide Arena, struggling to get out the words.
"I've been strong the whole year," he said, trying to explain. "It just got to me today, man. I just feel like I cost us a game, man. And I know we should be playing on Sunday."
Memphis coach Josh Pastner, sitting nearby, jumped to his star player's defense.
"Let me butt in a second," Pastner said. "This isn't on any individual. This is a total team. One, we've won 26 games, and you only win 26 by having good players who get the job done. When you lose nine, that falls on the coach. Players win games, coaches lose games. I've always said that to the guys, and I believe it."
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Tigers (26-9), regular-season and tournament champions of Conference USA. They came into the NCAA tournament on a hot streak, having won 20 of their last 23 games.
But Saint Louis (26-7) and wily coach Rick Majerus came up with a game plan that stifled the Tigers, preventing them from getting out and running.
"We wanted to make sure we limited their fast-break baskets and make defense a priority," said Majerus, who has won more than 500 games as a coach at Marquette, Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis.
Some observers thought the Billikens were overmatched. Memphis was bigger, stronger, deeper, more athletic and had more NCAA experience. As Majerus had said a day earlier, Saint Louis didn't have any future pros on its roster.
"It's fun to come out and prove people wrong," said Brian Conklin, who scored 16 points, including five free throws in the final minute for the Billikens.
The Tigers shot just 39 percent from the field and were 2 of 15 from behind the 3-point arc. They were held to a season low in points.
Kwamain Mitchell also hurt Memphis, scoring 22 points and hitting three momentum-shifting 3-pointers.
Still, the Tigers led 37-29 with 11:51 left after point guard Joe Jackson scored on a 15-foot jumper.
With the Tigers still ahead 42-40 and 6:24 left, Mitchell took an inbounds pass and swished a 3-pointer from the left corner for the lead. Unlike the off-balance 3 with which he ended the first half, he didn't even bank this one.
And he still wasn't done.
After Memphis counterpunched on a bucket by Adonis Thomas, the Billikens tried to be patient in their halfcourt offense. Except that Mitchell ended up trapped with the ball deep in his own backcourt with the shot clock ticking away. He took two dribbles and let fire with an extra-long 3 that found nothing but net.
"The shot clock was coming down, so I had to just get it up," Mitchell said with a grin.
That bucket with 4:51 left put Saint Louis ahead by four. It also seemed to shock the Tigers.
Conklin, who hit 10 of 11 free throws, made two to make it 50-44. He hit two more a minute later for an eight-point lead with 3 minutes left.
The Tigers got as close as five, but Conklin and Jordair Jett made nine free throws to close out the game.
"Obviously, losing's no fun," Pastner said. "But I'm very proud of our young men."
Moments later, the Tigers were on their way back home, already trying to forget their latest loss while looking ahead to next year.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .
Updated March 16, 2012