Explorers will remember the journey

Posted: March 30, 2013

LOS ANGELES - In the end, as the end finally arrived long after many expected, this round of the NCAA tournament wasn't sweet for La Salle after all.

It was certainly sweet to get so far and so far from home, but there was nothing on Thursday night to ease the sting of a 72-58 loss to Wichita State that ended the Explorers' tournament winning streak at three games.

La Salle fell behind by 16 points at halftime as it was unable to match Wichita State's frontcourt play, and that deficit grew to 22 points early in the second half. The Explorers were able to make a little run when Wichita got into some foul trouble and when the shots that had been rimming out began to fall for La Salle. They got it down to 11 points midway through the second half, but couldn't sustain the comeback.

Sweet, sour, or in between, endings are always sudden in this tournament, and the finality of the loss was all the Explorers could feel when the final horn sounded. Eventually, they'll feel something else about the run.

The road La Salle traveled to get to the Sweet 16 was a lengthy one, and not just in miles. This team has carried the program from near anonymity in its own city to a spot on the national stage again.

After two straight losing seasons when the Explorers struggled because of injury and a lack of cohesion on the roster, La Salle won 21 games last season and a spot in the NIT. That turned out to be mere prelude to this run, however. The Explorers finished with a 24-10 record, won three tournament games, and went deeper in this tournament than any La Salle team since 1955.

It wasn't an impossible dream to get as far as they did, because the Explorers proved themselves capable of earning the wins, but the length of the stay was a little bit unexpected.

"We've played high-level competition all year," coach John Giannini said. "I don't think you could possibly call a school out of the Atlantic Ten that gets to this level a surprise."

Surprise or not, getting this far in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992 is gratifying for a program that was overdue for an uptick.

La Salle finished the regular season with a 24-point loss at St. Louis and then was bounced from the Atlantic Ten tournament by Butler, another double-digit defeat. Giannini told the team those losses only prepared it for what was to come, and he was right.

Invited to the tournament as the second-to-last of the 37 at-large selections, the Explorers had to quickly begin a journey that became a nearly two-week road trip. Along the way, La Salle logged a total of 2,754 miles in traveling from Philadelphia to Dayton, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. The Explorers were rained on and snowed on before finally getting to see the Southern California sun. Even though it didn't last long, they'll remember that feeling forever.

La Salle beat Boise State, Kansas State, and Ole Miss in rapid-fire succession over a span of five days last week before heading west and getting a little bit of a chance to catch its breath.

"The interesting challenge [playing Wichita State] was to maintain our focus," Giannini said. "Coming out of Selection Sunday, we had a couple of days before Boise State where we were able to be very focused. Of course, you win and you travel an hour after the game. You have less than 48 hours for your next game and less than 48 hours for the next. Everything was immediate and very focused. Having a little bit of extra time [before Thursday's Sweet 16 game] made maintaining the focus a little more difficult."

Focus had less to do with La Salle's difficulties out of the gate than did the strong inside game of Wichita State. From the very start, the Explorers had no answer for 6-foot-8 Carl Hall at either end of the floor.

When the Shockers were able get the ball inside to Hall - too often - he had a great touch around the basket and scored 14 points in the first half as Wichita State took a 38-22 lead. The news wasn't any better when the Explorers were on offense.

Not only did the Shockers collapse in the middle to close off the lanes for La Salle's dribble-drive attrack, but Hall and forward Cleanthony Hall cleaned up everything off the boards.

What the Explorers had in this game was a shooter's chance. If they launched from the outside and had a great night, then they would have a chance to climb back into the contest. That wasn't happening in the opening half, however. La Salle did make three three-pointers, but overall shot just 26.7 percent (8 for 30) from the floor.

Maybe running into the wrong opponent at the wrong time wasn't inevitable for the Explorers, but that's what found them on this night, and the long journey through March stopped just a little short of reaching April. It was still a great month.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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