Saint Louis falls to Michigan State

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The sweet moment Brian Conklin had imagined, the one where he and his teammates danced around the floor in celebration, was now washed away by tears.

After Saint Louis’ season ended with a loss to Michigan State, Conklin, who was part of coach Rick Majerus’ first recruiting class with the Billikens, couldn’t control his emotions as he broke down and wept.

For all its joy, March can be equally cruel.

The Billikens, executing Majerus’ game plan of slowing down the Spartans to perfection, gave the top seed all it could handle Sunday before falling 65-61 in the West Regional. Saint Louis’ first tournament appearance since 2000 was a success, but it ended one win shy of the school getting to the round of 16 for the first time.

In the end, Michigan State had a little more.

“We fought our guts out,” Majerus said.

Conklin scored 11 points in his final college game and did all he could in guarding Michigan State’s sensational Draymond Green, who finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Conklin bravely answered questions during the postgame news conference when a request about Majerus’ influence triggered a sentimental outpouring of gratitude.

“Coach has done so much,” Conklin said. “Being his first recruiting class, he told me that we were going to help him build something special here. And it felt like this year it really came together. He’s a great coach. I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn’t just teach you about basketball, it’s about life.

“We all love each other in that locker room.”

Make no mistake, Majerus, who remains one of basketball’s best quotes, can still coach. After retiring briefly for health issues and working as a TV analyst, he’s back where he belongs — on a college campus helping young men improve their skills on and off the floor.

Now that the season’s over, Majerus intends to take some time off, but the 64-year-old plans to return to the Billikens.

“I am old,” he said, drawing laughter. “Listen, my AARP card says I’m old. I would really like to come back. You’re born and you die alone. I could get killed driving home tonight. But I really plan to be there. I wouldn’t do that to the kids. I told all those kids at Utah I would stay, and I did. Urban Meyer and everybody else left Utah.

“They tried to get out. I made commitments to kids. We’ve got a lot of good guys coming back. I just want to take some time off.”

With Michigan State’s season in peril, Green turned to teammate Keith Appling during a timeout and told him to be ready. His moment was near.

And when it arrived, Appling delivered.

His shot, the one Green urged him to take, helped save the Spartans.

Appling’s critical 3-pointer with 1:34 left, a 20-foot jumper set up by Green’s drive and marvelous pass, advanced the Spartans, who survived a 90-foot tug-of-war and wills with the scrappy Billikens.

Green’s sixth assist, a two-handed, overhead pass across the floor, set up Appling and allowed the Spartans (29-7) to advance. They’ll play No. 4 seed Louisville in the West Regional semifinals Thursday in Phoenix.

“I don’t need to be a hero trying to make some scoop layup,” Green said of his decision to pass up a shot. “If I see a guy open, I’m going to hit him. He was wide open in the corner, and I knew once he caught the ball, it was going in. I didn’t try to get the rebound. I ran down the court. I already knew it was going in.”

Sitting a few feet away on the podium, Tom Izzo gave his star an incredulous look.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Izzo said.

“Wasn’t enough time,” Green replied.

Appling added 19 points for the Spartans, who had to scrap their way past the ninth-seeded Billikens, who controlled the tempo but never got a complete handle on Green. Michigan State’s superb, do-everything senior even grabbed a mop and helped wipe up some sweat off the floor in the final minute.

Sweeping past the Billikens was much tougher.

Kwamain Mitchell scored 13 and Jordair Jett had 10 for Saint Louis, which was within 55-51 when Appling hit his shot.

“We made them earn every shot that they took,” said Conklin, who worked hard on his game last summer. “The game plan worked to perfection. The guy that we wanted to make shots, he hit a couple. And that’s the difference in the game, four points, but that was the whole game plan. I said it was going to be a war — dirty basketball.”

The Billikens came up short, but Majerus was proud of how his team, although less talented, made the Spartans squirm.

After missing out for 12 years, Saint Louis was again a player in the NCAA tournament. The Billikens beat Memphis in their opener to earn a shot at Michigan State.

“It’s an honor and privilege,” Majerus said “We have a good chance of being back.”

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