Explorers could not stand taller

Posted: March 30, 2013

LOS ANGELES - La Salle's exit path from this NCAA tournament seemed inevitable.

Not when it would happen - nothing was predictable about this unforgettable and historic Explorers run - but how.

When your second-tallest starter is 6-foot-5 and your first big man off the bench is 6-6, getting beaten inside is the obvious worry.

"They got bigger. We got smaller," a La Salle administrator noted at one early timeout Thursday night when Wichita State subbed out a 6-8 guy for a 7-footer while the Explorers switched out a 6-8 for a 6-6.

It wasn't just height that determined this NCAA Sweet 16 at the Staples Center. If you assumed Wichita State might be similar to Butler and St. Louis inside - plenty enough of a challenge for La Salle - it turned out these Shockers were more athletic inside than either of La Salle's tough Atlantic Ten foes.

One Wichita State big man knew how to change his body in the air and go for a reverse layup. Another could throw up such a good pump fake that no fewer than three Explorers near him went into the air. An open lay-in ensued.

That pump-faker, Carl Hall, annihilated La Salle in the first half, scoring 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, and doing equal damage at the other end, with three blocked shots.

The irony of all this is that La Salle's lone post starter, 6-8 sophomore Jerrell Wright, had the best offensive game of any of the Explorers, working effectively inside repeatedly after halftime.

La Salle made things briefly interesting after the break, but in that crucial first half, Wichita State had as many blocked shots (four) as La Salle had offensive rebounds. At that point, Wichita State had more points in the paint (24) than La Salle had points.

"How 'bout a rebound?" a La Salle student had moaned at halftime. He also could have groaned about how hard it was for the Explorers to get to the rim in the first half.

Explorers 7-footer Steve Zack had been cleared to play after missing 3 1/2 weeks with a foot sprain. But his conditioning was going to be an issue, and it's impossible to believe he could have been a difference-maker.

Zack said afterward that he could tell on the morning of the game that there was discomfort when he moved laterally, and moving laterally was a big requirement against those Wichita guys. He never got off the bench. Even fully healthy, it's not plausible to think one sub could have stopped the early onslaught.

Early on, the Wichita State big men didn't just screen and roll. They screened and raced, ready for the ball or hitting the weak side for a rebound. It mattered not at all that the Shockers made only one three-pointer in five first-half tries as they took a 38-22 lead. Those jumpers didn't come until right after the break, pushing Wichita State's lead out to 44-22.

Wright gave Explorers fans a glimmer of hope after that. A key force for La Salle during their three NCAA victories, Wright took over for a spell. He scored on a three-point play, then raced for his own miss and got it when he wasn't boxed out during a 10-0 Explorers run.

You also have to give Explorers sub post player Rohan Brown a lot of credit for working like crazy to bottle up the middle defensively in the second half. He's the 6-6 backup, but Giannini kept shuttling him in as a defensive sub for Wright.

In the first half, the deciding half, there were no fastbreak hoops to be had for La Salle because Wichita State only turned the ball over four times and always got everyone back on D. Here's a weird and telling little fact: Of La Salle's 12 first-half rebounds, four were team rebounds, meaning the ball went out of bounds off a Wichita player or there was a tie-up, which happened once.

So La Salle actually only cleanly grabbed eight of their 12 first-half boards. Ramon Galloway was the only player who had more than one rebound in the half.

Sometimes, the matchups spoke for themselves. La Salle's defense is predicated on constant switching. Sam Mills may be the top Explorers defender but giving away six inches to a guy who matched his athleticism wasn't going to work. The next switch, D.J. Peterson got the same guy, Cleanthony Early, only giving up three inches. Before the possession was over, Early got to the rim with nobody in his way.

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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