La Salle is headed to Atlantic City.
The Explorers overcame a game-high 31 points from Richmond's Darien Brothers on Tuesday night and cruised to a comfortable 80-72 win over the Spiders at Tom Gola Arena.
While Richmond heads home, La Salle will prepare for the second-seeded St. Louis Billikens, whom they face Friday at 6:30 p.m. in the quarterfinal round of the A-10 tournament. The win improves the Explorers to 21-11 overall and 10-7 in conference play. This will be the team's second trip to Atlantic City in as many seasons.
"It means a lot," La Salle junior guard Ramon Galloway said.
"We tried to do this for Earl Pettis. This is his senior year. We all just came together and played hard. Going to Atlantic City it's always been a dream of everybody's to play in the postseason. A lot of people don't make it that far. We're just blessed and grateful that we have the chance to go to A.C."
Galloway, a junior-transfer from South Carolina, is a big reason the team has that chance. Not only did he produce a pretty impressive stat line in his own right -- scoring 17 points, dishing out eight assists and grabbing seven rebounds -- but he also inherited the responsibility of guarding Brothers in the second half.
Brothers scored 22 points in the first -- more than any Explorer would in the entire game -- to keep his team within seven, 40-33, at the break. He finished 10 for 16 from the field, 4 for 7 from three and 7 for 7 from the line, but scored only nine points once Galloway took over as his primary defender.
"He was carrying their team," Galloway said. "I wanted to play him so bad. My teammates, Earl and Sam Mills, let me guard him and put their trust in me."
What was the method to his success?
"I just tried to stay in front him and not let him get open threes," Galloway said. "Just keep moving my feet, just put pressure on him. I made him drive. He hit a lot of open threes early. So, I thought if I made him drive, it would make his shots tougher."
As Brothers struggled to match his early production, Richmond's Derrick Williams tried his hand at leading the Spiders to a second-half comeback. After Williams went scoreless in the first half, the Spiders made a concerted effort to feed the 6-foot-6, 275-pound power forward in the post. He finished with a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double and put La Salle big men Jerrell Wright and Devon White in foul trouble.
Still, La Salle could live with those totals from Williams after he burned them for 22 and 11 in a 78-73 Richmond win earlier this season. The Explorers knew they would have to do better if they wanted to move past the Spiders, and they did.
"We put a lot of emphasis in our practice on Williams," Galloway said. "The first game, he went off for a career-high. And so coach John Giannini challenged the bigs in practice everyday, saying, 'Listen, you guys got to man up, you got to play with pride, play defense.' And they really stepped up. We really credited this win to the bigs."
Richmond's three leading scorers this season -- Brothers, Williams and Cedrick Lindsay (17 points) -- all finished above their averages, but no other Spider recorded more than Greg Robbins' six. The only two others to make an appearance in the points column -- Kendall Anthony and Darrius Garrett -- each had just one basket.
Contrast that with the Explorers, who had four players in double figures, shot 50 percent (26 for 52) from the field and 47 percent from three (8 for 17), and it isn't hard to see why La Salle led by as much as 15 in the second half.
"They're a team that's difficult to defend, especially when they're shooting well, which they usually do," Richmond coach Chris Mooney said. "They spread you out. They play with such a nice, easy pace. They're never rush anything. I though that we just couldn't defend them well enough to extend any runs we had."
Richmond had two runs in the second half to cut La Salle's lead to just one with 17:34 and 11:37 to play, but a 10-2 Explorer run sparked by a Mills three-pointer pushed the La Salle lead back to nine points. From that point on, they never led by any less than six the rest of the way.
"I thought we at times played well," Mooney continued, "like when we came back in the second half and cut it to one. But they were able to score fairly quickly to extend the lead again.
"I wish he had played a little bit better. And I feel for our seniors and our team, because, the way the format is, we don't get to go to Atlantic City. But I congratulate La Salle and wish them well."
As Mooney contemplates whether to accept any potential invites to other postseason tournaments like the NIT, CIT or CBI -- which he said he will first discuss with his seniors -- La Salle must quickly turn its sights toward its matchup with St. Louis.
In their only meeting this year on Feb. 11, the Billikens defeated the Explorers 59-51. La Salle turned over the basketball 20 times that day. They'll obviously be looking to fix that by Friday.
"We expect a tough, full game," Galloway said. "St. Louis is a great defensive team, like we are. The difference is that we want to focus on not turning the ball over. When we played St. Louis, we turned the ball over a lot. When you turn the ball over, you lose games. So we're just going to go back to the drawing board, back to the basics, dribbling drills, shooting, regular stuff."
Whether or not they get that sorted out, Giannini seemed pleased just that his program has the opportunity make it to Atlantic City and play a team like St. Louis.
"I think any time you put yourself among the better teams in this league, that's a good thing," he said. "Every day of every year, I'm just so impressed with how good this league is. I don't think people realize how good you have to be just to be in the top half of this league. Forget the very top. If you're a good team in this league, you're a good team nationally. So we're really excited.
"St. Louis is tough. They're really gritty. They're really hard-nosed. They really defend. They're probably as tough a team, physically and mentally, as there is in the league. But we had a great game with them here. We did have a lot of turnovers in that game. We had some guys not have good individual performances. So hopefully we play better."
E-mail Nick Menta at firstname.lastname@example.org