I didn’t stick around to see for sure, but it would not surprise me if Yuri Collins was the last one out of Chaifetz Arena on Tuesday night, turning out the lights and locking the doors behind him after he finished sweeping up the popcorn and taking out the trash. Why not? He did everything else.
Not by himself. Because that’s just not his style. He’s best at making everyone around him better.
Still, if the Billikens are going to turn this season into an unforgettable one, there are going to be games where Collins has to do more than help make his teammates great. There are going to be games he needs to take over.
Tuesday night was one of them.
Collins answered the call.
“I truly believe Yuri Collins is the best point guard in America,” Billikens coach Travis Ford said after the game.
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Collins’ first assist of nine found teammate Gibson Jimerson for a 3-pointer that gave the Billikens a lead they never surrendered during a 90-84 win that tested the resolve of Ford’s team. The should-be-ranked Billikens passed the first big test of their young season. This win should send ripples across the sport. This win should age well when NCAA Tournament time comes around. This win had Collins’ fingerprints all over it.
His final two points of his game-high 22 slammed the door on Memphis coach Penny Hardaway’s tenacious Tigers. Those last two free-throws came with 11 seconds left, as Collins nudged back to multiple possessions a second-half lead that had gone from 15 points in SLU’s favor, down to a terrifying two-point margin before Collins stepped to the line.
All night, Collins found teammates with precision and vision to set up Billiken buckets. He lofted leading touch passes that would make quarterback coaches swoon. He fired the ball through passing lanes only he can see.
Before the game, both coaches told their players that one would be won by the team that attacked the paint the most and the best. Collins’ elite passing put the Billikens in position to score near the basket, when he wasn’t getting there himself. The Billikens outscored Memphis 40-30 in the paint. Collins attempted a career-high 14 free throws and made a career-best 12. This was big-boy basketball, and the undersized SLU point guard was the toughest guy on the floor in a bruising game played in an electric atmosphere that felt more like March than mid-November.
So many times during Collins’ terrific career here have the Billikens jumped out in front of a game that would represent a breakthrough win only to see things come unraveled late. Not this time. The point guard who wears all kinds of tape over his battered hands kept pulling the game back in his direction.
“I’m sure that was running through our heads,” Collins said. “We didn’t say anything to each other. We can’t let a game like that go. So, we buckled down.”
Speaking of buckling down, how about Collins’ defense? Don’t overlook it, insisted Ford after the win. Memphis point guard Kendric Davis, a transfer from SMU, fancies himself the best point guard in college hoops. He said so himself headed into this game, when reporters in Memphis asked him if he had studied film of Collins and SLU.
“I (watch film) a little bit,” Davis said, according to The Commercial Appeal. “Not too much. I just feel like, no disrespect, I’m a bad (expletive). I don’t need to really. I respect everybody. So, I don’t need to watch nobody to respect them less or respect them more. I just feel like I know what’s coming. I know they got a good guard in Collins – Yuri.”
Collins guarded Davis most of Tuesday, holding him to 18 points and four assists. Collins outscored Davis. He out-assisted him. He matched him in rebounds (three) and steals (one) and played one more minute than him, too. Collins only turned the ball over twice, once per half. He’s now up to 36 assists with just seven turnovers through three games, for the Bob Cousy Award voters out there who are hopefully keeping track.
And that’s not all Collins did Tuesday.
He helped officiate. When Hardaway was leaning on the refs, trying to get Collins called for a charge, Collins walked over the Memphis coach and told him in a matter of fact tone: “He’s flopping!”
He helped clean up the place. Not kidding. When a loose-ball scramble made Chaifetz Arena’s floor slippery, Collins grabbed a towel and helped a ball boy clean up the sweaty mess. Everyone in the building, including the man the building is named after, SLU super booster Richard Chaifetz, was struggling to breathe. And there was Collins, cleaning up the mess.
He kept his teammates calm, cool and collected. When Memphis made its big run, and you knew one was coming in the second half because this is a good team the Billikens beat here Tuesday night, Collins could be found commanding huddles and forcing his confidence into others. He clapped his positivity into existence. He asked for deep breaths and level heads. “We’re good!” he shouted so often throughout the second half his teammates had no choice but to believe it, even as they failed to score a field goal in the final seven and a half minutes, relying only on free throws to ice the game.
He helped coach. Honest. Ford checked Collins out for a quick second-half breather. There was 8:14 left in the game. SLU immediately got flustered without its court leader and turned the ball over. Collins checked back in at 7:53. Ford didn’t call for it. Collins made the call himself. Fine by Ford. He was about to put Collins back in anyway.
“On that one, I threw myself back in, Collins said. “I just ran to the scorer’s table. I didn’t really need a rest.”
Collins was the last player in the Billikens’ handshake line after the win. He sprinted from there to the student section, where he gave out high-fives to his classmates. Then he rushed to the pep band to thank his director. And Collins still wasn’t done. He decided he better help craft the game coverage.
“Make sure you all talk about our fans and our student section when you all write this up,” Collins asked of reporters before he disappeared for the night, perhaps to go restock cups in the concession stands or start breaking down the bleachers.