La Salle needs a win-win-win-win situation

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tyreek Duren believes La Salle can surprise naysayers.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tyreek Duren believes La Salle can surprise naysayers.
Posted: March 13, 2014

LA SALLE will arrive in Brooklyn for this year's Atlantic 10 Tournament in much different standing than it found itself a year ago.

The consensus last year was that the Explorers, coming off a 24-point loss at Saint Louis in their regular-season finale, needed at least one win to secure their place in the NCAA Tournament. After an 11-point loss to Butler in their first game at the Barclays Center, they sweated out Selection Sunday before learning they were indeed included in the field of 68. The rest, as they say, is history.

Twelve months later, after following up last March's memorable Sweet 16 run with a disappointing .500 regular season, La Salle knows exactly how many A-10 Tournament wins it needs to qualify for the Big Dance: four.

And while the eighth-seeded Explorers (15-15, 7-9 A-10) are certainly a longshot to run the table in their conference tournament - top-seeded Saint Louis awaits Friday if they advance - they enter the postseason with the confidence that comes with winning three of their last four, including Sunday's upset at Saint Joseph's.

"That's why I can't wait for this conference tournament to start," La Salle senior guard Tyreek Duren said before practice yesterday. "I'm happy that it's March. I'm happy that the conference tournament is here. People are sleeping on us."

La Salle is certainly familiar with its opponent for tomorrow's opening game. And vice versa. Duren & Co. split two games against St. Bonaventure (16-14, 6-10) this season, each team winning on its home floor. The contests had very different identities.

The first meeting, a 66-51 Bonnies triumph on Jan. 22, proved to be one of the Explorers' worst offensive performances of the season. They turned the ball over 17 times, shot just 30 percent from the field and made only three of 17 three-point attempts.

That result snapped La Salle's five-game winning streak. Its 75-67 home win in the Feb. 26 meeting snapped a five-game losing skid. The offense clicked to the tune of 56.5 percent field-goal shooting and 20 assists. Key defensive stops and made free throws down the stretch clinched the victory.

The Bonnies have not won since that second meeting. In fact, they enter the conference tournament on a four-game losing streak, their longest of the season.

Meanwhile, for whatever it's worth, the Explorers finished the regular season on a positive note.

"I think feeling good always helps," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "Feeling confident certainly beats the feeling of being frustrated with losing. But every game is different. You can never count on anything.

"Everyone in our league is pretty much a top-100 team. Even the teams that have slipped a little bit below that have only done so because we've beaten up on each other. It's a five-, six-bid league in terms of the NCAA Tournament and every game is going to be at a very high level."

If La Salle is to beat St. Bonaventure (tipoff at noon), it will need to thwart the Bonnies' senior guard duo of Matthew Wright and Charlon Kloof. The 6-4 Wright averages a team-best 16.7 points, fifth in the A-10, and has scored at least 20 points in five of the last six contests. The 6-3 Kloof averages 11.5 points and is tied for the conference lead with a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"Wright's a great three-point shooter," Giannini said. "You can't give him any space. If he crosses halfcourt and you give him half a second, he's probably going to make it. And Kloof is a strong guard who can shoot but he's really strong going to the basket . . . Their skill sets and strengths are very obvious, but they're harder to stop than it is just to talk about it."

Duren said he thinks the experience of La Salle's rotation in big games will help in Brooklyn. Three of the Explorers' starters - Duren, Sam Mills and Tyrone Garland - are seniors, while big men Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack as well as sixth-man D.J. Peterson are juniors.

"I think we've fixed all our kinks," Duren said, referencing the nine conference defeats, four that came in one-possession games. "We've got everything out that we need to get out. And now it's March. Anything can happen."

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