La Salle's Wright is 'in' to win

Jerrell Wright, who scored the Explorers' last nine points, dunks for two of them.RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Jerrell Wright, who scored the Explorers' last nine points, dunks for two of them.RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: March 24, 2013

KANSAS CITY - Their dream had crumbled and they were going home and everybody in the building knew it. The La Salle Explorers had built a swaggering 18-point lead at halftime against Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and then the whole thing had been incinerated, every last bit of it, in the purple cauldron that was the Sprint Center.

No. 13 seeds in this annual spectacle do not take that kind of a punch from a No. 4 seed and get up - do not - and especially in a de facto road game. The Kansas State fans numbered well more than 10,000 in an 18,000-seat arena. The La Salle fans numbered in the low hundreds. The Explorers' lead dwindled and the roar in the building grew and multiplied and this just was not happening for La Salle. Was not.

And in the middle of it all, there Jerrell Wright stood, alone.

The free-throw line is not the 6-8 sophomore's favorite place. He had been a 60 percent free-throw shooter this season. He had been 1-for-5 in the Explorers' opening-round NCAA victory over Boise State. The notion that Wright would shoot 9-for-10 in a tournament game was laughable, frankly. He had never before made more than six free throws in a game in college.

But there he stood, again and again . . .

. . . focusing on the rim and on a single word . . .

. . . "in."

"There were no butterflies," Wright said, later, after he scored the final nine points in the Explorers' 63-61 stunner of a victory. "Coach [John Giannini] just told me every time I shoot a free throw, have the same form, keep my focus when I shoot my free throw. Today I just thought about 'in.' "

In 1985, the Villanova kids shocked the basketball world and chanted a sing-song in celebration, "April Fools, April Fools." In 1981, a Saint Joseph's forward named John Smith punctuated a gigantic upset over DePaul with a layup he named after a South Philadelphia playground, "Fourth and Shunk." In 1979, the Penn Quakers knocked off top-seeded North Carolina - in Raleigh - and claimed they were motivated by the in-house slogan, "We've got a secret."

NCAA memories.

Cherished talismen.

"In."

It started at practice after the Boise State game, Wright said. He said that Giannini is forever trying to get him to replicate his form at the free-throw line, to get him to focus on the rim and nothing else, but the results have been decidedly mixed. So what Giannini did was add this magic word to the process.

"Just focus on the word 'in,' " the coach told him, "because if you focus on a word like that, you're not focusing on somebody else."

Who chose the word?

"Coach G," Wright said, laughing.

And hereafter?

"It worked, so I'm going to be using that for now on," he said.

The free throws would decide a game that had featured these gargantuan swings of emotion - La Salle, so fluid and so accurate in the first half; Kansas State, so dominating inside in the second half. It seemed that the stage had gotten too big, suddenly, for the Explorers. Or maybe they were tired. The explanations would be as easy as the ride home would be hard.

But Giannini, as he called timeout after timeout in an attempt to stop the avalanche, said he kept pounding on his players to get more defensive stops. And then it started to happen: a couple of missed free throws by Kansas State, and a couple of those defensive stops, and then the repeated placing of Wright in the spotlight.

With 6:04 left and the Explorers trailing by two, Wright made two free throws that tied the game.

With 4:18 left and the Explorers trailing by two, Wright made two more free throws that again tied the game.

With 30 seconds left and the Explorers trailing by one, Wright made two more free throws that put La Salle ahead.

With 9.6 seconds left and the Explorers leading by one, Wright made one of two free throws that added to the lead.

"I'm not going to say that I'm used to doing this," Wright said. "But the team expects me to do it, and I expect myself to do it, too. This was the game where I had to show my talents today and it came through."

Ole Miss, a No. 12 seed, is next for the Explorers on Sunday. Everything is suddenly going right for a basketball program that has been unable to catch a break for 20 years. Maybe there really is a law of averages after all.

The transformation from "Why?" to "Why not?" is the greatest element of this tournament. And for the first time in forever, it just seems as if it is now officially OK for the Explorers to dream.

That is the takeaway.

That, and this:

"That we can play with anybody, I guess," Jerrell Wright said.


Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

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