St. Joe’s, La Salle and Temple Fall in Atlantic-10 Tournament Quarterfinals

La Salle's Rohan Brown (35) goes up past Butler's Erik Fromm in La Salle's loss to Butler.The day after Villanova was run out of Madison Square Garden by Louisville in the Big East Tournament, three more members of the Philadelphia Big 5 went down in the Atlantic-10 Tournament at the Barclays Center, one borough South of Manhattan in Brooklyn, New York. Reminiscent of last year’s tournament played in Atlantic City at Boardwalk Hall, St. Joe’s, La Salle and Temple all lost on the same day of A-10 Tournament action, making it two straight years “Black Friday” has occurred in mid-March for the Big 5.

St. Joe’s was picked to win the Atlantic-10 in the preseason coach’s poll, but finished their disappointing year in the middle of the pack with an 8-8 conference record. Their only hope of earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament was if they were to receive the automatic bid by virtue of winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament. While providing their fans some hope by unexpectedly beating 7th-seeded Xavier, 58-57, in thrilling fashion on Thursday, that hope quickly faded as they were ousted by 2nd-seeded VCU the following day, 82-79.

St. Joe’s played their hearts out and made it interesting at the end thanks to three-point baskets by Langston Galloway and Papa Ndao in the final 12 seconds, but the better team eventually won. Head coach Phil Martelli and the Hawks are now left hoping for an NIT bid after what was supposed to be a promising season.

The silver lining for St. Joe’s, however, is the fact that they will have four returning starters next year, losing only point guard Carl Jones to graduation. Although he was the team’s leading scorer and floor general, the Hawks will be a veteran group during the 2013-2014 season as all four of those returning starters will be entering their Senior year. Martelli can only hope that experience will lead his team back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.

Temple had earned a 3-seed and a first-round bye in the tournament thanks to their 11-5 conference record and fantastic play down the stretch, which included a March 10th victory over then-21st-ranked VCU. Senior Khalif Wyatt, who led the Atlantic-10 in scoring with a 19.9 points per game average during the regular season, was named Conference Player of the Year just three days prior to the Owls’ first-round match-up with 6th-seeded UMass.

Temple had beaten the Minutemen, 83-82, during league play on February 16th, which was the Owls’ first of seven consecutive wins to end the season. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to carry over that momentum, as UMass won the quarterfinal match-up, 79-74, making it the second straight year the Minutemen eliminated Temple from the A-10 Tournament.

The Owls led by three with just over seven minutes left in the game when 5’9 Junior point guard Chaz Williams took over for UMass. The Brooklyn-native drove into Temple’s defense on five consecutive possessions, and came away with four made free throws, two layups and a dish to his 6’10 Sophomore teammate, Cady Lalanne, for an inside basket that gave the Minutemen a 67-64 lead with four minutes to go.

Chaz Williams is one of the best players in the conference,” Khalif Wyatt said. “He’s relentless. He definitely leads this group. He was real tough down the stretch.”

Unfortunately for Temple, the same could not be said for Wyatt, as he struggled mightily in one of his worst games of the season. He did score 19 points and made 9 of his 10 free throw attempts, however, he went just 4 for 19 from the field, including 2 of 11 from three-point range, while committing four turnovers.

“He’s a tremendous player. He did force a few things,” Temple  head coach Fran Dunphy said. “But at some point you’re saying to yourself, he’s going to get us out of it.”

After Senior forward RahlirJefferson’s jumper pulled the Owls to within three, 71-68, Sophomore guard Will Cummings thought he had stolen the ball from Williams at half-court, but instead was called for the foul. Williams made both free throws with 70 seconds left to stretch UMass’ lead back to five, 73-68.

Wyatt nailed a three on the following possession to make it a two-point game, and Fran Dunphy called timeout as it appeared as though the Owls were going to make the comeback and keep their A-10 Tournament hopes alive. Senior forward Terrell Vinson, however, who finished with 14 points and 4 rebounds, was not going to let the Minutemen lose. He hit a huge three-pointer from the left wing with 33 seconds left on the clock to make it a two-possession game, and UMass held on from there for the 79-74 win.

After their surprising early exit from the Atlantic-10 Tournament, Temple now heads into Selection Sunday with a bit of nervousness, though the Owls would be far more insecure if not for their win over 25th-ranked VCU in their regular-season finale. With victories over St. Louis, Syracuse and Villanova as well, all teams who look to be earning NCAA Tournament bids, Temple should be safe from being excluded from this year’s Big Dance, even with their disappointing loss to UMass on Friday.

The La Salle Explorers, who are in the most tenuous position out of the three Big 5 teams with legitimate chances of earning NCAA Tournament bids, had two huge opportunities to make their situation a little less daunting, starting with their final game of the regular season against 16th-ranked St. Louis on March 9th.

One of the best teams in the country that is flying under the radar, however, the Billikens dominated La Salle in the season finale, winning by 24 points, 78-54. The Explorers had a chance to redeem themselves after their first-round bye in the Atlantic-10 Tournament, squaring off with 5th-seeded Butler on Friday in the quarterfinals at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

La Salle had defeated Butler back on January 23rd by one point, 54-53, in a signature win for the Explorers as the Bulldogs were ranked 9th in the country at the time, despite playing without their leading scorer, Senior guard Rotnei Clarke, who was sidelined due to an injury.

Clarke was back in action this time around, however, and along with him, the Bulldogs also possessed postseason experience, very much unlike La Salle.  Butler has been an NCAA Tournament mainstay for the past several years, and were better-equipped for handling high-pressure games, which was very evident on Friday after knocking the Explorers out of the tournament with a final score of 69-58.

Similar to Temple’s Khalif Wyatt against UMass, La Salle’s leading scorer, Senior guard Ramon Galloway, struggled horribly against the Bulldogs in what was his worst game of the season, at the worst possible time. Galloway had averaged 17 points per game during the regular season, and was in the running for Atlantic-10 Player of the Year until Wyatt was chosen.

In his 37 minutes of playing time, Galloway shot 1 for 10 from the floor, including an 0 for 7 performance from beyond the arc, finishing with 4 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers. In the two games against St. Louis and Butler, Galloway scored a combined 12 points, making just 4 of his 22 attempts from the field.

Clinging to a one-point lead early in the second half, the Bulldogs went to work inside, exploiting La Salle’s height disadvantage under the basket. 6’11 Senior center Andrew Smith, who finished with 11 points and 8 rebounds, scored in the low post, 6’6 Junior forward Khyle Marshall threw down a thunderous dunk, and 6’9 Sophomore forward Kameron Woods completed a three-point play after a put-back off a missed basket. The 11-2 run gave Butler a double-digit lead, and the Bulldogs held off the Explorers the rest of the way.

Butler shot just 3 for 15 from three-point range, but were 25 for 42 on 2-point attempts. They outscored La Salle 42-24 in the paint, and out-rebounded them 41-23. Junior guard Tyreek Duren led the Explorers with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, while Sophomore forward Jerrell Wright added 14 points and 11 rebounds.

La Salle head coach John Giannini certainly understood the importance of Friday’s game with regard to the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s no question if we win today, we’re in,” he said. “And now, frankly, we might be at the mercy of others a little bit.”

With just two wins against RPI top-50 teams and a brutal loss to Central Connecticut State, who finished the year with a 198 RPI ranking, La Salle really would have benefited from at least one victory in their last two games, whether it was against St. Louis or Butler. The fact that they lost both leaves the Explorers feeling very uneasy on Selection Sunday.

It’s been a great year of college basketball for the Philadelphia Big 5, and it certainly isn’t over quite yet. With Temple and Villanova seemingly locks for the NCAA Tournament, the question remains whether or not La Salle can make it three out of five for the first time since 2008. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long for the answer.

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Andrew Dalton

Andrew grew up and still resides right outside Philadelphia in Montgomery County and has been a die-hard Philly sports fan for as long as he can remember. One of his earliest sports memories, unfortunately, was watching Joe Carter hit the World Series winning homerun off Mitch Williams in 1993 with his Dad. All that did however, was make the Phils' 2008 World Championship that much sweeter. You can follow him on Twitter @dutch4885.