La Salle finally sheds a beast of burden

La Salle's Tyreek Duren fights off two Boise State defenders during second-half action. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
La Salle's Tyreek Duren fights off two Boise State defenders during second-half action. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Posted: March 22, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio - Whatever 23 years weighs, it is a load best shared.

The last time La Salle won a game in the NCAA tournament, Lionel Simmons wore one of those blue-and-gold uniforms on his lean, athletic frame. On Wednesday night, the bespectacled, 44-year-old Simmons sat in the stands - the embodiment of all the years that had passed since La Salle's last great era.

If those years added a gray hair or two to Simmons' beard, they represented an undeserved burden for the current Explorers. They might have been babies, or not yet born, when the L Train rolled through, but the blue-and-gold unis on their backs weigh exactly 23 years.

Or did. Until this: La Salle 80, Boise State 71.

"Unbelievable tradition here," coach John Giannini said of the program he has restored. "People tend to forget what a basketball power La Salle was for four decades. So it's a big deal to reestablish that."

It just took some heavy lifting. Last week, with the first NCAA tournament bid in 21 years at stake, the Explorers struggled - no one so much as senior Ramon Galloway.

"You don't have to do it alone," Giannini told Galloway.

Share the weight. It will be easier to carry.

"I was in a slump," Galloway said after delivering 21 points and stifling defense in the biggest game of his life. "The last two games, I felt like I was forcing it. Coach G said just relax, play your game. I was just trying to get my teammates into the game."

And so it was that Sam Mills buried three three-point baskets in the opening minutes. So it was that D.J. Peterson made a couple of big shots. So it was that Tyreek Duren played rock steady while Tyrone Garland comet-trailed around the floor. So it was that Jerrell Wright opened the second half with three buckets in a row.

Nine minutes in, Galloway drove from the right. He put up a running one-hander that floated in, giving La Salle an 18-11 lead. Two minutes later, Galloway fired from downtown (if Dayton had a downtown), a three-point shot to make it 25-12.

He was in the flow. La Salle was in the flow. The Explorers overcame the absence of 6-foot-11 center Steve Zack thanks to Wright's strong performance and the relentless quickness of their guards. Garland, in particular, was electrifying.

If there was any doubt La Salle deserved to be in the tournament, it was wiped away quickly. If there was any disappointment at being sent to Dayton for the "first round" - what used to be called play-in games - that was also quickly erased. Games in the quirky (and packed) University of Dayton Arena have all the buzz and sparkle of any other site on the opening weekend of the tournament.

Four teams convene here. Two go on. Two go home. This year, Dayton is also hosting the second and third rounds. So eight more teams, including Temple, were pouring into town Wednesday.

The La Salle and Temple camps crossed paths in their hotel lobby. The place might as well be at Broad and Allegheny.

And there was a little extra bonus for the Explorers. The Thursday and Friday action is a kaleidoscope of last-second shots and arm-waving coaches. On Wednesday night, La Salle and Boise State were the only tournament game available to the millions of bracket-clutching fans hungry to start checking off wins.

Nobody was hungrier for a win than La Salle and its fans, not after 23 years. It was a big moment for Giannini, his players, and the rest of the La Salle community to hear their name called Sunday. But getting a win - that elevates the program in a profound way.

"It relieves great pressure off our chest," Galloway said. "We didn't want to just get selected. We want to make a run. We want to show that La Salle can play with the best teams in the country."

The Explorers get another chance when they join the kaleidoscope on Friday. They had to hustle to make a charter flight to Kansas City, Mo., after the game. They will practice Thursday among Villanova and the six other teams playing there. It is from such experiences that winning programs are built.

Besides, it's always more fun to make history than to carry it on your back.

Contact Phil Sheridan at Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus