La Salle does its Villanova imitation

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Boise State's Ryan Watkins pulls down a rebound in front of La Salle's Jerrell Wright in the first half.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Boise State's Ryan Watkins pulls down a rebound in front of La Salle's Jerrell Wright in the first half.
Posted: March 22, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio - When he senses his players feeling a little intimidated, La Salle's basketball coach looks to Villanova.

Dr. John Giannini looks to the 2005-06 Wildcats, specifically; an undersized team that played ravenously. In the bruising Big East Conference, they slayed giants all season en route to the Elite Eight.

Giannini knew this edition of Explorers, rebuilt for the third time in his nine seasons, might do something special, too. They might win the Big 5.

They might make the NCAA Tournament. They might win a game.

But only if they believed that bigger is not always better.

"G always compares us to that Villanova team, with Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye and Allen Ray," point guard Tyreke Duren said. "He told us they made a run and that nobody expected them to. They played teams that were way bigger than them.

"He always shows us that film where beat Georgetown when Georgetown had Roy Hibbert. He says, 'This can be our team. This is what we have to do.' "

It is, to a large degree, what they did. They rode role players and 63.3 percent shooting to their first NCAA win in a generation, 80-71, over Boise State on Wednesday night, securing the No. 13 seed in the West Region. They take their backcourt magic to Kansas City, where they face fourth seed Kansas State on Friday.

"We had five guards that played at a high level. We had a quickness advantage," Giannini said. "That was the difference."

The flaw in the plan is obvious: Using four guards at all times virtually surrenders the paint. The entire team must seek to rebound, to help defending the post, even at the expense of fastbreak points.

The genius of the scheme lies in depth, and quickness, and, most important, multiple weapons.

Boise State focused on shutting down La Salle scorer Ramon Galloway and Duren, whose offense drives the team.

Most of the time.

Wednesday night, in the Explorers' first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1992, defensive specialist Sam Mills and sixth man Tyrone Garland combined for 37 points on 14-for-18 shooting.

On its 150th Charter Day, that pair as much as anyone gave the institution and anniversary gift: a return to basketball relevance.

Lionel Simmons sat tucked into a flock of La Salle fans midcourt at the University of Dayton Arena.

"How cool was that!" Giannini gushed.

Simmons proudly wore a gray sweatshirt with a blue-and-gold logo on its front as he witnessed the team return to the significance he ensured when he played there . . . back when the team made NCAA trips with regularity. It was as if the La Salle faithful knew what was going to happen.

A couple of hundred Explorers fans heartened Galloway and Co.

"When I saw we had our own little section there, it made us play so much harder," Galloway said. "We knew we had support. I ain't gonna lie: I didn't think there would be that many people traveling to Ohio. They proved me wrong."

They are the vanguard of a resurgence for La Salle as a program and, perhaps, as an institution.

"Universities talk a lot about branding. Basketball is part of our brand," athletic director Tom Brennan said.

The brand can only flourish further now.

"We didn't just come here to make the tournament," said Garland, who scored 22. "We came to win games."

Nobody cared who spurred the winning.

Galloway's alley-oop dunk might make the highlights, but Garland's second-half spinner, as well as three-pointers by him and Mills, who had 15 points, finished off by a drive-and-dish by Garland to Jerrell Wright, were what kept the Boise State at bay.

As Giannini expected, the Broncos never wilted.

The teams' practices Tuesday at the NCAA play-in site were open to the public. "The public" included all of the opponents.

Giannini, in his first trip to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, did not realize this. He planned to run a full-scale dress rehearsal, complete with offensive plays and defensive schemes.

Of course, he scrapped those plans. He just ran a few rudimentary drills.

He also informed his assistants that they would not be taking the team bus back to hotel, situated well out of town. He wanted to get a look at Boise State.

One look at the tall, muscular Broncos running their three-man weave, and Giannini knew his Explorers would have their hands full.

That was especially true since they still did not have Steve Zack, the No. 2 rebounder this season, who has missed the last four games with a sprained left foot. Wright played mightily, but La Salle managed only 22 rebounds, beaten on the boards by seven.

Try as they might, the Explorers could not contain Broncos' 6-6 Australian gunner, Anthony Drmic, the team's top scorer, who dropped 28.

Galloway and Duren did not disappear. Galloway shed a two-game, 4-for-22 drought, including 11 missed three-pointers, dropped a trio of three-point bombs en route to a 21-point night. Duren scored two points, but he kept things cool.

Besides, Duren, like everyone else but Galloway (the only senior) has a chance to return to the tournament, where La Salle once routinely dwelled. It was the 12th trip to the dance for La Salle; a trip that seemed less likely every year.

Giannini inherited a program rocked a rape scandal and rebuilt it, only to have it ravaged by injuries; then, he rebuilt it again.

"It's really satisfying," he acknowledged. "But I don't want it to be satisfying, because satisfied competitors aren't as good as hungry ones."

So, yes, they might be small. But, after 21 years, they are famished.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Columns: Philly.com/MarcusHayes

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