Dwayne Evans had 24 points and six rebounds, Cody Ellis scored 12 points and the fourth-seeded Billikens overwhelmed New Mexico State 64-44 in the second round Thursday behind a dominating defense.
“It was like Rick was up on top of the backboard slapping the ball out,” Aggies coach Marvin Menzies said.
Playing with a heavy heart since Majerus died in December, Saint Louis reached another mark in March for its late coach. The Billikens (28-6) eclipsed the 1988-89 team’s school record of 27 victories and are back where they were a year ago in the round of 32.
They will play Saturday against 12th-seeded Oregon. The Ducks beat fifth-seeded Oklahoma State 68-55 to advance.
“What’s really pleased me is it’s not what you do, it’s what you are,” Saint Louis interim coach Jim Crews said. “And these guys, what they are has really grown and matured and been good leaders. And at their stage of life that’s what you really want guys to be. And that’s what’s been rewarding from my standpoint.”
Saint Louis had no problem maneuvering around 7-foot-5 freshman Sim Bhullar and New Mexico State.
Evans shot 11 of 16 from the floor and finished a point shy of his career best to propel Saint Louis around, over and even through the 355-pound Bhullar, who struggled to keep pace. The Billikens held Bhullar to four points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
Bandja Sy had 17 points and nine rebounds for the 13th-seeded Aggies (24-11), who shot a miserable 28 percent. Saint Louis shot 46 percent and forced 16 turnovers.
“The game got kind of scrappy and we kind of got out of sync for a little bit,” said Aggies guard Daniel Mullings, who had six points on 2-for-9 shooting.
The big man only bothered the Billikens briefly.
The lumbering center stayed around the rim while his other four teammates chased five players around the perimeter. The unconventional defensed allowed Bhullar to save energy and protect the paint.
Once Saint Louis solved the big man, it had no trouble on either end.
The Billikens pushed the pace and often left Bhullar in the backcourt, especially when New Mexico State committed seven turnovers in the first nine minutes. Evans pulled up for several uncontested jumpers just inside the free throw line, scoring 16 points during a 29-14 run to open the game.
“He had his work cut out,” Evans said, “because we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things.”
Bhullar didn’t make his first shot until 3:49 left in the first half when he converted a short hook, and he didn’t register his first block until swatting Evans’ shot 2:37 into the second half.
After New Mexico State showed a brief burst of offense to slice Saint Louis’ lead to nine, the Billikens again leaned on Evans to pull away. He converted a pair of difficult reverse layups, outsmarting Bhullar around the rim to lift Saint Louis ahead 37-23.
The Aggies made their best run with Bhullar on the bench. Sy slammed an alley-hoop from K.C. Ross-Miller to highlight an 8-0 run that brought New Mexico State within six.
The highlights for the Aggies ended there.
Evans and Ellis — who wore a blue Mohawk-style strip across his hair — each made a 3-pointer during a 12-2 spurt for Saint Louis that put the game away. The Billikens led 49-34 with 9:30 remaining, and in typical Majerus fashion, never relented.
Players wore a patch on their jerseys — a ribbon with the word “Coach” — as they have since Majerus died of heart failure in December. He left the team before the season because of health concerns, and Crews has taken over and led the Billikens to the A-10 regular season and conference crowns.
The Billikens beat Memphis last year before losing in the round of 32 to Michigan State. They made their first opponent looked like a walkover, although that’s hardly been the case the past two months.
The Aggies had won 18 of 20 games, including the Western Athletic Conference tournament title for the second straight season. New Mexico State also was a No. 13 seed last year, losing 79-66 in the first round to Indiana.
And while the Aggies haven’t won a tournament game since beating Nebraska in the opening round in 1993, they at least seemed satisfied to lose to such an opponent playing for such a worthy cause.
“I’m happy for those guys in the other locker room,” Menzies said. “They’re keeping their dream alive.”