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ST. LOUIS – The USC Upstate men's basketball team trailed by just three points in closing minutes Friday evening, but a late Saint Louis run propelled the Billikens to a 76-59 victory over the Spartans at Chaifetz Arena to open the 2012-13 season.
Saint Louis, receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll, opens the season with a win, while the Spartans drop their season opener for a seventh straight year. The Billikens improve to 2-0 in the all-time series with Upstate.
"I thought we played well for about 30 minutes and then we really disintegrated right there at the end," head coach Eddie Payne said. "We didn't execute offensively down the stretch and Saint Louis demonstrated their experience late in the game and that's what happens when you play a good team."
Five ties and three lead changes was the story in the opening eight minutes, including four different two-point leads for the Spartans. Jodd Maxey scored the first four points of the night for Upstate, converting a reverse layup at the 19:20 mark and hitting a baseline jumper two minutes later.
"I thought they were good coming in, and I know they're good coming out," SLU interim coach Jim Crews said. "Every time we made a mistake, they drilled us every single time," he said. "It was uncanny. If we made a defensive slip, we got burned."
Ty Greene gave the Spartans their final advantage of the night at 12-10 when he hit a running layup, but Cody Ellis erased the two-point lead and created the sixth tie of the contest at the 11:24 mark when he was perfect on two free throw attempts.
The Billikens led by as many as 11 in the first half, but an Adrian Rodgers three-pointer and a pair of free throws from Fred Miller late in the period made it an eight-point game at 36-28 heading to intermission.
The Spartans made the most on their first possession of the second half when Jodd Maxey cut through the lane slammed home a dunk to cut the Saint Louis lead to just six at 36-30.
Mario Blessing got in on the action less than a minute later when he pulled up from the top of the key drained a three-pointer to keep Upstate within striking distance.
The Spartans continued to close the gap at the 13:12 mark when a loose ball ended up the hands of Torrey Craig in the corner and he promptly drilled the trey to cut the Upstate deficit to just a pair at 44-42.
Saint Louis responded with a run of its own over the next three minutes and Keith Carter capped a 10-2 run with a three-pointer to extend the Billiken lead to 10 points at 54-44.
Craig came right back at the 9:28 mark and buried another three-pointer, this time from the wing to propel the junior to double digits on the night and send him into the USC Upstate record books as the 18th player in school history to reach 1,000 points for his career.
The Spartans continued to cut into the deficit following the milestone for Craig, as Ricardo Glenn converted a layup with 8:54 remaining to make it 54-51 game.
The Billikens would take over from there and push the lead back out to 14 at 67-53 before a 9-0 run sent Saint Louis to a 76-59 season-opening victory.
"I thought we defended the pick and roll really well, but we didn't defend the drive at all," Payne said. "I think the thing that hurt us was our quick shots on offense and some bad turnovers. There are some good things to take away from this game, but I was disappointed about how we played the last seven minutes and that is where games are won against good teams."
Against the Billiken's top-10 defense in the country a year ago, the Spartans shot 53 percent from the floor and 54 percent from long range, but managed just six free throws. Upstate went 3-for-6 from the charity stripe, while Saint Louis lived at free throw line, knocking down 19 of 22 attempts.
Upstate will look to break into the win column Monday evening when the Spartans play host to Hiwassee College at The Hodge Center. The home opener for Upstate is slated to tip-off at 7 p.m.