Sam Mills leads La Salle in leadership

Posted: March 28, 2013

It isn't easy to be the glue that holds together the shiny pieces of a basketball team, but if there is going to be winning, there has to be glue.

For the La Salle Explorers, a team whose roles have made possible its goals, the glue is junior guard Sam Mills. His work on the court doesn't fill the box score, but it allows the box score to get filled. He doesn't really lead the team in anything except leadership, because if Sam is willing to do the dirty work, then everyone does the dirty work.

"Sam is so quiet and humble that people overlook him," said senior Ramon Galloway. "People don't understand that Sam's been a scorer. In high school and in AAU, his history is he's an offensive guy. In college, everything changed up a little."

On the same team as a great scorer like Galloway, Mills is most useful as a facilitator on offense and perhaps the best defender on a team that is filled with them.

Against Ole Miss on Sunday night, just before the Rebels' last full possession, the one that might do nothing less than decide which team went to the Sweet 16, coach John Giannini took Galloway off star shooter Marshall Henderson and gave the assignment to Mills.

Henderson was having an off night - in part because La Salle had kept him out of rhythm - but his range is "gym," and he was one more make from winning the game for his school.

"Ramon really wanted to guard Henderson. All of our guys are good defenders. That's why we have success. But during the timeout, I said, 'Let Sam guard him. This is why we recruited him. He's tough. He's a great defender. Let Sam win this game,' " Giannini said. "When Ramon heard that, he was, like, 'Of course. Sam can shut him down.' And that's how we all feel about it."

Henderson did get the ball, but he got it with too much Sam Mills in his face to shoot from the perimeter. He tried to drive the lane but lost control under the pressure, didn't hit the rim with a bobbling shot, caught it himself and Mills knocked the ball away again as the shot clock expired on Ole Miss.

One improbable driving teardrop of a bank shot by Tyrone Garland later, the Explorers were in the Sweet 16. That shot was the game-winner, but so was the one Henderson didn't get to take.

"He was definitely trying to make the big shots at the end," Mills said. "But fortunately I was able to zone him out and always have a hand on him so he couldn't make an easy one. I just tried to stay on him as much as possible."

Mills, who is from the Miami area, averaged 22 points as a high school senior and can score for the Explorers, too. Aside from Garland's, he might have hit the biggest shot on Sunday when he made a three-pointer with the Explorers trailing by five points and four minutes to play. He was also fouled on the shot, but missed the free throw, only to see teammate Jerrell Wright grab the rebound in traffic and make a layup to tie the game.

"Everyone's going to look at that last-minute shot," Galloway said. "Well, it takes every play to get to that last-minute shot."

And it takes every bit of glue on the roster to hold together the team at times like this. Giannini, who has had teams that weren't as cohesive, knows how special that is.

"All coaches talk about the right stuff, but the student has to be willing," Giannini said. "I'll get a lot of credit now. I got blame in the past in similar situations. I'm the same guy. What's different are the players.

"All the cliches that coaches talk about . . . toughness, getting stops, sharing the ball, sticking together, staying positive. Those things are all true. A lot of teams do them, but a lot of teams don't. This team has great intangibles. They are tough. They are together. Frankly, that's why we're here."

If you can sell a scorer on being a facilitator and a defensive specialist, and he embraces that role, then you have the makings of a group that is just as special and rare.

"I try to do anything to help my team win," Mills said. "If it's playing defense for the whole 40 minutes and not scoring, that's what I'm going to do. I'll do that. I'll do anything to put my team in position to win."

That's what he did on Sunday, and that's what his intention will be Thursday night against Wichita State. Anything that helps. His teammates catch that fire from Mills, and all of them are tough and together. As the man said, that's why they are still around.

Contact Bob Ford at Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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