La Salle is ready for its close-up

YONG KIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ramon Galloway celebrates a three-pointer with teammate Sam Mills in victory over Georgetown.
YONG KIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ramon Galloway celebrates a three-pointer with teammate Sam Mills in victory over Georgetown.
Posted: March 08, 2013

THEY'RE READY.

They're not just worthy of an NCAA berth; the La Salle Explorers are ready to make a fourth seed nervous, ready to make a fifth seed scared.

If Temple is the city's most talented team, then La Salle is its best. That is, La Salle's four-guard core most often executes its plans best.

The Explorers play the best team defense. They shoot wisely, pass unselfishly; they draw charges, and they fill distinct roles with zeal.

They feature athletic mutant Ramon Galloway, a senior who is jump-shot refinement from a nice pro career. They are run by coldblooded junior Tyreek Duren, who one day will be that co-worker who steals your sales, or maybe the boss who fires you without compunction.

The Explorers maximize the tools at their disposal.

Those tools turned La Salle into a 21-win team with one game to play before the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Its 11 A-10 wins are the most in program history and secured them a first-round bye. As such, a conference tourney loss would come to one of the final eight teams left, which would not be a terrible loss.

Before that, La Salle plays at Saint Louis on Saturday, and it plays as a decided underdog. The Billikens are ranked 16th in the nation.

"We get that one, it should lock us in there," Duren said.

If they didn't tank Wednesday night against visiting George Washington.

"We talked about that the whole time: These are games you've got to win," Galloway said. "Especially being at home."

The Explorers' coach, Dr. John Giannini, used GW coach Mike Lonergan's strategy to La Salle's advantage, Lonergan having told his struggling club that it at least could spoil La Salle's dream.

"He told us their coach said this was a Super Bowl game for them," Galloway said. "It was a Super Bowl game for us, too. We had a lot at stake. A lot at stake."

Unaffected by the gravity of the moment, the Explorers efficiently dismantled GW. In the first 8 minutes of the game, they forced that many turnovers, which pushed them to a 15-point lead they rode all night to the 84-70 win.

"These guys show up. That's why we have a chance," Giannini said. "They know we're not going anywhere unless we beat George Washington."

Galloway scored 29, two off his career high, in every imaginable manner . . . except by dunk, perhaps his most refined weapon. Significantly, his two most memorable plays did not even involve him scoring.

Galloway tore through the retreating GW defense and dropped a pass behind his head to Jerrell Wright for a dunk in the first half, one of his three assists. He then pinned a shot from 6-10 center Kevin Larsen, who is 7 inches taller than Galloway, one of his two blocks. He also stole the ball three times.

"When he makes plays like that, it brings that extra energy," Duren said. "That extra edge."

The Explorers are an imperfect team. Their reliance on three-point shooting leads to unwise shots. Galloway's two early offerings, from a combined 50 feet, might better have gone unshot; then again, they were the only two of the nine shots he missed in the first half.

Short or slight or, in some cases, both, the La Salle players cannot rebound with anyone, really. That could undo them next weekend, and beyond. It helped doom them at Temple on Feb. 21, their only loss in their last eight games. It cost them dearly against UMass at Gola Arena on Jan. 30, a hurtful loss against a then-decent team, but on the heels of wins over Top 20 opponents Butler and VCU.

They have issues.

But they belong.

Wednesday night, they avoided a trap game against a 12-win team that started four freshmen and had lost five of its last six games. In a year or 2, the Colonials should again be relevant in the A-10, especially as it weakens with defections by other schools.

GW's future is bright.

La Salle's future is now.

Feted in his final home game, Galloway will be the only significant loss to the program.

But, you never know . . .

An injury here, a bruised ego there, some weight gain over there, and the Explorers could be back in the NIT.

They need to last in the A-10 tourney.

They need to see the NCAA Tournament this season.

They need to learn how to win, which will teach them to consider winning their entitled right.

They need to recruit on the strength of what they can do in the next 2 weeks.

Giannini, in his ninth season, has built to this moment: 21 wins this season, coming after the NIT last season.

"We changed the program," Galloway said.

"Hopefully, people will see this program is back where it needs to be," Duren said. "Hopefully, people will start wanting to come here."

They have won big games.

They have won key games.

They could not be more ready.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Columns: Philly.com/MarcusHayes

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