Phil Sheridan: La Salle falls and now will have to play waiting game

Coach John Giannini has yet to guide the Explorers to the NCAAs in his nine years at the helm.
Coach John Giannini has yet to guide the Explorers to the NCAAs in his nine years at the helm. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: March 16, 2013

NEW YORK - The margin was six points.

La Salle's only true senior, Ramon Galloway, stepped to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. Make them both and Butler's lead, once as high as 12, would be down to four with 4 minutes, 25 seconds to play.

Galloway, stuck in a waking nightmare of a game, clanged the first attempt. Butler grabbed the long rebound and stormed down the floor. Rotnei Clarke, the Bulldogs' senior point guard, hoisted up a long three-pointer.

Good. Butler 67, La Salle 58. The Explorers never scored again. Their big, must-win Atlantic Ten tournament appearance was a bust. Given a chance to kick open the door to the NCAA tournament, La Salle will instead have to wait by the side door and hope to be invited in.

"I don't want to say we're nervous," La Salle guard Tyreek Duren said. "Depending on how other teams do, I think we belong in the NCAA tournament. Any way you look at it, this isn't our last game."

It will be an excruciating weekend, watching other conference tournaments and trying to decode the falling dominos that will determine whether La Salle's next game is in the NIT or - for the first time in 21 years - the NCAA tournament. That is an enormous difference, a program-altering difference, and everybody attached to the La Salle program knows it.

"At La Salle, we take basketball very seriously," coach John Giannini said. "When you take basketball seriously, you build a program, and there's just a lot of good teams. There's a lot of schools that want to be in that NCAA tournament. They invest a lot into it, and we're one of them."

Giannini is in his ninth season at La Salle. That is a long time without getting to the big tournament. There are unique challenges at La Salle, as there are at Drexel and St. Joseph's and Penn and Temple and Villanova. But still. It would mean a lot for Giannini to check that box on his to-do list.

There are challenges at a school like Butler, too. It's a little liberal-arts school in Indianapolis. No one who followed sports gave the place much thought before Brad Stevens was hired as the head basketball coach six years ago.

"As good a coach as he is," Giannini said, "it goes back to players. A coach at our level selects the players. I think he has a certain kind of guy in mind, and they turn out to be super tough, extremely skilled, really smart. Of course, he's built a culture over there.

"I credit him with building a program. That's what he's done. More than win games, he's built a program."

Winning the Horizon League didn't get that done. Making remarkable runs through the NCAA tournament did. At 35, Stevens has already taken his teams to the Final Four twice.

If you can build a national power at Butler, or at Gonzaga, you can do it anywhere. And anywhere includes Philadelphia.

Clarke was at Arkansas when Butler went to consecutive Final Fours. He transferred in order to play for Stevens. That meant becoming part of that winning culture, and that's exactly the way Clarke played Friday afternoon.

La Salle was the higher seed. La Salle had the better conference record. La Salle had, on paper, more talent. But it was Butler that played like an NCAA berth was its birthright.

The Explorers didn't, and that really started with Galloway. He shot just 1 for 10 from the field, including 0 for 7 on three-pointers. He had as many turnovers as points.

There really wasn't much Giannini could do, other than hope Galloway turned it around.

"When you come that far with a first-team all-conference guy, you're not changing at the last second," Giannini said. "I think continuing that confidence in guys is important, not only in this game but moving forward. And at any moment, he could make four or five in a row."

That never happened. As a result, Giannini and his players will endure a weekend of bracketological torment. They will have to sit through the grueling tournament selection show, hoping for that precious opportunity to prove they belong among the top programs in the country.

Thing is, they had that opportunity here Friday and bounced it off the rim.

Contact Phil Sheridan at Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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