"I was just trying to calm him down," said Duren, the former Neumann-Goretti standout. "It's OK, though. I know how he is."
Off to the side, Giannini smiled. And you understood a little better why he's finally having fun, after a couple of trying years. He has a talented point guard who gets him, who sounds just a little like Jameer Nelson used to when he spoke of his coach back in the day. Duren was even tutored by the former Saint Joseph's star last summer. And the coach has an assemblage of young hustle players, fast on their feet and constant in their intensity, making Penn's pitch at a Big 5 upset as much a match of wills as it was a match of guards.
Zack Rosen, Penn's outstanding guard, was his usual smart, relentless self. But the Explorers made him play the length of the court each and every time down the floor for all 37 of his minutes, hounding him with a relentless chase, seemingly wearing him out by the end. Rosen finished with nine assists, many jaw-dropping, and it might have been almost twice that had some of his better passes been converted. But he made three of 13 shots, including two of six from outside the arc.
Duren scored 21 points, had six assists, dribbled and passed his team out of trouble each time Penn pulled within a puncher's chance of an upset, prompting Penn coach Jerome Allen to say afterward, "Tonight, Duren just dominated the game."
"I think Dr. John is doing a great job. They play unselfish. They play hard," Allen said. "I think they did addition by subtraction. Not having Aaric Murray, obviously, a lot of people thought that they would take a hit.But these guys are buying in."
Murray transferred to West Virginia over the summer, and was arrested here for drug possession last month. A 6-10 center, he averaged 15.2 points per game and 7.7 rebounds for La Salle last season.
He also averaged about 10 vacation minutes per game.
Fun is not a word you would have associated with Giannini by the end of that season. Anything but. A portion of La Salle fans and alumni, some with an unrealistic infatuation of the school's storied but distant past, expected much more from the Explorers over the last few seasons. In truth, so did Giannini. But while there were tangible reasons for his team's struggles - injuries to several key players two seasons ago, the sabotaging behavior of Murray - he took unwarranted heat for the team's shortcomings, and did so with dignity.
In his eighth season at La Salle, Giannini's reward appears to be this unselfish group, even as he cautions enthusiasm over his team's 13-4 start with, "It's so early."
Those 13 victories include only two league wins, against UMass last Sunday and an upset of Xavier, their calling card thus far. They also played two Big East teams to the wire, botching a chance to beat Villanova at the Lodge and losing by four to Pitt, also on the road.
"All I know is that we try really hard, play great defense, we can play at a high level," said Giannini. "But we play in a great league. Time will tell."
So will the next 8 days. La Salle visits Dayton, another one of the A-10 surprises, on Saturday. Then it's Temple at the Liacouras Center next Wednesday. And while the win over Penn will not be read nationally as an important measurement, it clearly was to the teams involved. Giannini has told his team repeatedly that winning in the Big 5 earns you attention nationally.
"So I'm thrilled," he said. "To me it was one of our better wins."
So thrilled was he that for much of the second half there was no stomping, no need for his point guard to check up on him. Even when Penn pulled close one last time at the end, trailing by just five with just under 2 minutes left, Giannini finished his timeout with a smile and hand slap for each of the five players he sent back out to finish things up, exhibiting the calm confidence his guard had implored early in the game.
"That's a good psychoanalysis," said the doctor. "We were pretty relaxed. We were pretty confident. We have good kids . . . "
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