Shining a light on La Salle

Posted: March 19, 2013

RAMON GALLOWAY could take no more.

The NCAA Selection Show was three-quarters over. Galloway, a senior, had not heard his team's name called, and he was miserable, anxious, claustrophobic.

Before the commercial break began, Galloway was out of the stuffy conference room under La Salle's Heyman Center. He needed space, air, away from the press and the players and his coaches.

He paced up and down the hall outside, alone. He talked to himself.

He sent up a couple of prayers, and, of course, he worried.

Galloway relived the games this season when even he, the team's best player and leading scorer, could not will them to win: against lowly Central Connecticut, RPI of 200; at Temple, a loss that cost them an outright Big 5 title; against Massachusetts, the hiccup that followed the program's biggest wins in the 21 years since they last went to the NCAA Tournament.

Galloway relived his lowest point at La Salle, last season, when family concerns coaxed him to transfer home from South Carolina. Galloway suffered a concussion in his debut as an Explorer, which cost him three games. Confined to a darkened dorm room - he could not bear electric lights - he watched La Salle lose tight games at Villanova, then at Pittsburgh. He came back and lost to Robert Morris, but could only manage 16 minutes.

Galloway relived his worst moment of Sunday. It came nearly 30 minutes earlier, when he heard Middle Tennessee State announced as a play-in team for an 11 seed in the Midwest. Prognosticators had placed La Salle and Middle Tennessee at the same level. With Middle Tennessee in, Galloway's stomach churned as the slots filled in the South, then in the East. He had to get away.

Galloway heard the commercial end and forced himself to return to the conference room, to the front row.

And to elation.

La Salle will play Boise State in a play-in game at 9:10 p.m. Wednesday at Dayton for a 13 seed. The winner plays Friday night at Kansas City, against Kansas State.

Galloway's consternation was well-based. The Explorers were the second-to-last team to earn an at-large bid, but did so convincingly, as head selection chairman Mike Bobinski tells it: 21-9, eight road wins, four wins against other teams in the field and monstrous wins over Butler and, especially, at Virginia Commonwealth.

"The win at VCU was real big. A top-25 road win is something that a lot of folks don't have," Bobinski said.

That was, and this is, validation for a struggling program once considered among the nation's elite.

"It makes [the country] look at us like, 'This is a serious program. La Salle is back. It's not the joke of the conference any more,' " said sophomore point guard Tyreek Duren, a Philadelphia native.

The berth was the fifth for the Atlantic 10 in this NCAA Tournament but it was the first time La Salle has represented the A-10, having joined in 1995. The Explorers have not gone to the NCAA Tournament since 1992.

Duren was 1-year-old. So was Galloway.

La Salle's faithful can thank them for returning the Explorers to relevance.

"I will not know how much my name will weigh until years from now," Galloway said. "I am happy just to be a part of this."

A part of something he never would have believed possible last season, sitting in that darkened room, watching his team lose.

"I can't believe it. Even when I transferred, if you'd told me we would make the tournament, I wouldn't have believed it," Galloway said. "I didn't know. I didn't know what we had."

He knew what La Salle had been.

Galloway is a Philadelphia native. When he visited as a transfer candidate, La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini sold Galloway on historical names, now nearly ancient: Tom Gola, Lionel Simmonds, Tim Legler.

He did not know what La Salle could become; in particular, Galloway did not know how smooth Duren, then a true freshman, would become. When La Salle's name finally popped up on the flat screen, Galloway and Duren shared a hug for 20 full seconds.

"Man," Duren told Galloway, "it's been a long road. We're finally here."

Duren, a Ss. Neumann-Goretti High product, was heavily recruited by Temple, but he saw in La Salle a chance to create his own legacy.

"This is why I came here: To get this program back to the tournament," Duren said. "To get them back in the national spotlight. This is where we make our run."

A run might be asking a lot, but after January wins over Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, both top-20 teams, a berth, at least, seemed inevitable.

That is, it seemed inevitable until 30 minutes into the selection show had passed and their name went uncalled.

"They had people in here sweating, man," said junior guard Tyrone Garland. "As long as I didn't see Maryland or Kentucky or Tennessee, I thought we'd be good."

That's right. This season, in this moment, La Salle can claim superiority over strong ACC and SEC programs.

That is not lost on Giannini, who, in his 17th year as a Division I coach and his ninth at La Salle, finally made it to the tournament.

Sure, they were the second-to-last team in, but they are in, and his resume is enhanced.

"I agree," Giannini said. "It's the way people are measured in our business. It's infinitely harder than the average fan would realize . . . It's important however you look at it."

After 24 years as a head coach - he won a Division III title at Rowan - Giannini hoped to savor the announcement of his arrival, too. He never heard the announcement.

"I didn't see it," said Giannini, who sat near the back of the room. "The players jumped up and I didn't get to see it! I didn't even get my moment, so to speak!"

Giannini didn't mind.

Not when he was blocked by a pack of players wearing the La Salle blue and gold, jumping and chanting, "All we do is turn it up!"

In the middle?

Ramon Galloway.

He didn't mind the company now.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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