DAYTON, Ohio – When La Salle heard its name announced on Selection Sunday, it ended a 21-year NCAA tournament drought for the Explorers.
Of course, there was a temporary sense of relief and happiness in the conference room where the team watched the selection show -- but that quickly went away. La Salle didn't want to just make the NCAA tournament; it wanted to win games and stick around the big dance for a few days.
On Wednesday night, the Explorers jumped out to an early lead on Boise State and held off every run from the Broncos, eventually pulling away for an 80-71 win in the First Four. La Salle advanced to play No. 4-seeded Kansas State on Friday in Kansas City.
“It means a lot,” said guard Ramon Galloway, who had 21 points. “It sums up the whole year. We worked hard to get here. We didn't just get selected. We want to make a run, and we want to show everybody that La Salle can play with the best teams in the country.”
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La Salle's ability to put four guards on the floor at the same time enabled the Explorers to take advantage of their quickness and create matchup problems for Boise State. In addition to Galloway's 21 points, sixth man Tyrone Garland had 22 points, while Sam Mills knocked down five 3-pointers. Even though point guard Tyreek Duren struggled to score, he was still able to get into the lane draw the defense.
As a result of the attention being paid to the Explorers' perimeter group, big man Jerrell Wright had 13 points and six rebounds -- with several of his buckets coming off wide-open finishes due to easy dump-offs from the guards.
“We had four or five guys that were playing at a high level. I think that was the difference,” coach John Giannini said. “We were playing to our players' strength. They're really quick. You want to keep the floor spread and you want to be aggressive. That's how we play.”
La Salle slumped toward the end of the season, losing by double-digits to both Saint Louis and Butler at the end of the regular campaign and in the conference tournament, respectively. An injury to 7-footer Steve Zack has meant an already small team has to play even smaller.
Zack didn't play Wednesday, and doesn't look likely to play on Friday against Kansas State. The Wildcats are a tough, physical team that guards far better than Boise State. Moreover, they attack the offensive glass as well as anyone in the country -- and the Explorers have really struggled to rebound, especially without Zack in the lineup.
“The guards have to get more rebounds,” Galloway said. “You have a 7-footer out, and you only have Jerrell down there, it's going to be hard for him to grab every rebound. It's on the team when other teams grab rebounds. They don't say Jerrell lost the rebounding battle; they say La Salle lost the rebounding battle.”
On the plus side, Kansas State doesn't have a huge size advantage. The Wildcats' top five guys in minutes played are all 6-foot-5 or smaller, meaning La Salle won't immediately be outmanned in the paint.
The Explorers will again rely on their perimeter group, and their ability to take defenders off the dribble, to get points. La Salle's sharing of the ball made life very difficult for Boise State to rotate defensively.
And after shooting 11 for 21 from 3-point range, the Explorers look like they've snapped out of their slump and have their confidence back.
“It's lose or go home,” Galloway said. “We want to be here. We want to make a statement.”
They made a statement on Wednesday, giving La Salle its first NCAA tournament win since 1990.
But again, the Explorers aren't content.
“We're still playing,” Giannini said. “So it's not the time to be satisfied.”
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