They were teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble just two weeks ago, sweating it out on Selection Sunday, praying for their name to appear on the bracket, and it finally did for the first time in twenty-one years. They were forced to participate in a play-in game, where they defeated Boise State convincingly. Their tournament run was supposed to end there, as nobody thought they could take down 4th-seeded Kansas State in the round of 64, but they did. They were underdogs against the 12th-seeded Ole Miss Rebels the following round, but then they beat them too.
As one of the last teams to make the field of 68, the La Salle Explorers used their Philly-bred toughness to win three games and go where no Explorer team since 1955 has gone. They had the entire city of Philadelphia behind them, and were the talk of the town.
After the 9th-seeded Wichita State Shockers (29-8) upset the West region’s top seed in Gonzaga last w
eekend, and the Explorers (24-10) took down Ole Miss the following night, the two teams were set to collide in the Sweet 16 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
An underdog yet again going into the game, La Salle quickly found out that Wichita State’s victory over Gonzaga was no fluke. The Shockers proved to be too much for the Explorers in their 72-58 victory that advanced them into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 32 years.
Wichita State landed the first blow as they overwhelmed the Explorers from the start, opening the game on a 14-2 run that had La Salle playing catch-up the rest of the way. The Shockers scored 17 of the game’s first 20 points while facing very little resistance in doing so, converting easy basket after easy basket in the low post.
“It took us a half to kind of adjust to the level they were playing at,” John Giannini said. “The second half was pretty evenly played, but we were in just too deep of a hole.”
The free-wheeling, guard-heavy Explorer rotation that earned them their victories over Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss looked tight from the outset, forcing shots as opposed to sharing the ball and running their offense.
Leading scorer Ramon Galloway, who averaged 21.5 points and shot 50 percent from the field in La Salle’s two wins in Kansas City this past weekend, managed to score just 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting.
“I just feel like I missed open shots. I missed an air ball, a floater,” said Galloway following the game. “Offensively, I was just missing shots early. Wichita State is a great team. They work hard and they play real physical. But I think they were playing really good, hard defense, and I just missed shots.”
Galloway and Tyrone Garland, who used his ”Southwest Philly Floater” with three seconds left to beat Ole Miss and send La Salle into the Sweet 16, combined to shoot 4-of-19 from the field in the first half, and as a team, the Explorers shot just 26.7 percent in the opening 20 minutes. Wichita State took a 38-22 lead into the locker room and after back-to-back threes from Senior guard Malcolm Armstead and Freshman guard Ron Baker to start the second half, the Shockers appeared to be well on their way to victory.
La Salle responded, however, with a 10-0 run, as 6’8 Sophomore forward Jerrell Wright scored seven straight points, and Galloway nailed a deep three from the left wing. At the 16:22 mark of the second half, the Explorers had pulled to within twelve, 44-32, and forced Wichita State to call timeout.
Over the next 8 minutes, La Salle failed to capitalize on several opportunities to cut further into the Shockers’ lead, at one point missing three straight second-chance shots during the same offensive possession.
Nine consecutive points from Malcolm Armstead followed, ending with a deep three at the 6:39 mark, and Wichita State held a 15-point advantage yet again at 62-47.
Three minutes later, an emphatic dunk by Junior forward Cleanthony Early gave the Shockers their largest lead of the game at twenty, 68-48, and with just under four minutes to go, La Salle’s improbable NCAA Tournament run was over.
Wichita State dominated inside, owning a 47-29 rebounding edge and outscoring the Explorers 40-26 in the paint, thanks in large part to 6’8 Senior forward Carl Hall, who was a menace in the low post all night, scoring 14 points in the first half.
“It was kind of an easy night for us on the inside because they only really have one post player,” Hall said.
“That was the game plan early on,” Armstead added. “Try to wear them down, pound it inside, and get inside-out shots, and that’s what we did.”
Hall ended up with 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting, adding 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. Malcolm Armstead led the Shockers with 18 points, going 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, to go along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Ron Baker chipped in with 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting, and Cleanthony Early added 8 points and 7 boards.
Jerrell Wright and Tyrone Garland led the Explorers with 16 points each, with Wright adding 5 rebounds. Ramon Galloway hauled in a team-high 8 boards to go along with his 11 points, and Junior point guard Tyreek Duren chipped in with 8 points and 4 assists.
Wichita State held La Salle to just 35 percent shooting from the field, a far cry from the 51.8% the Explorers averaged over their first three games of the tournament.
Looking ahead to next season, La Salle will be without Senior Ramon Galloway, who graduates at the end of this year. With the rest of the rotation expected back, however, a trip to the Sweet 16 is something John Giannini’s program can certainly build upon.
“We were in the NCAA Tournament; we won games, got to the Sweet 16. We know how this feels,” said Galloway. “So I think it’s going to push our guys to work harder in the summertime and next year. So without a doubt in my mind, I know we’ll be back. Just because I’m leaving, that doesn’t mean anything. Everybody’s great. We all help each other and love each other as a family.”
Just three years ago, the La Salle basketball program was in dire straits. On December 29th, 2010, the Explorers lost to Towson, a team who’s own coach at the time, Pat Kennedy, had insisted prior to the game that his team couldn’t win. He was wrong on that particular night, but Towson didn’t win another game that season and Kennedy got fired. La Salle had hit rock bottom, and the roster consisted of players who didn’t care, or were interested in the wrong things.
But two Freshmen guards, Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills, fought through the chaos and came out on the other side. They were joined the following year by transfers Ramon Galloway, Jerrell Wright, Steve Zack and D.J. Peterson, and Tyrone Garland hopped aboard this past season.
Thursday night’s defeat was certainly a disappointing end to such a promising season for La Salle, but in the days and weeks that follow, all involved will begin to appreciate what head coach John Giannini’s team was able to accomplish this season, especially considering where the program was just three short years ago.
Like Ramon Galloway said, the players now consider themselves part of a family, and when a Sweet 16 appearance is thrown into the mix as well, things are definitely looking up at 1900 West Olney Avenue.Tags: La Salle, loss, NCAA, NCAA Tournament, Wichita State