La Salle falls short in humbling loss to UMass

La Salle falls short in humbling loss to UMass
January 30, 2013, 11:00 pm
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The calls kept coming in and John Giannini kept answering them.

Alums told the La Salle basketball coach how exciting it was that the Explorers beat two nationally-ranked teams in the same week for the first time since 1952. They told him that this meant La Salle basketball was back and that the Explorers would make their first NCAA tournament since 1992. One caller even turned down tickets for Wednesday’s game against Massachusetts because he thought La Salle would win easily.

“It was a great thing so many people were happy but it was unbelievable; people just thought we were going to run the table,” Giannini said. “I must have had this discussion with people 20 times a day, just convincing them how tough UMass was going to be. And they still wanted to talk about last week.

“UMass is tough. This league is tough. And last week is over.”

Message received.

After last week’s historic wins over nationally-ranked Butler and VCU catapulted La Salle into the national spotlight and had Giannini’s phone ringing off the hook, the Explorers came crashing back to reality with a humbling 61-60 Atlantic 10 setback to UMass on Wednesday night at Tom Gola Arena (see Instant Replay).

And if all those people on the other end of the line didn’t believe Giannini then, they almost certainly believe him now: UMass, which is coming off an NIT Final Four appearance last season and has won 11 of its last 13 games, is a very good team. And the same goes for most of the teams La Salle will play for the rest of the season.

“With the national ranking thing, I said those teams are terrific,” Giannini said, referring to Butler and VCU. “But they’re no less terrific than UMass, they’re no less terrific than Saint Louis, they’re no less terrific than Temple, they’re no less terrific than Dayton, they’re no less terrific than St. Joe’s. I mean, this league is a monster.”

Despite Giannini’s many warnings, La Salle fell behind by as many as 12 points in the first half and trailed by nine with five minutes gone in the second half. But led by Ramon Galloway (16 points), the Explorers (14-6 overall, 4-3 Atlantic 10) started taking it to the Minutemen (14-5, 4-2) and claimed a 58-57 lead on a Galloway runner with 2:15 left.

Following a nice job by UMass to keep its possession alive and a big bucket from the Minutemen’s Terrell Vinson, La Salle point guard Tyreek Duren put the Explorers ahead again -- at 60-59 -- with a little under 40 seconds left.

At that point, UMass coach Derek Kellogg decided to put the ball in the hands of star point guard Chaz Williams and try to hold for one last shot.

“Someone just sent me a text message questioning that,” Kellogg said. “We actually went faster than I would have liked. They have so many handlers and guys who can make plays, I didn’t want to be in a position where we had to guard them at home, because I saw what Galloway did against Butler.”

The strategy worked out as Williams calmly waited with the ball at the top of the key, before dribbling around a screen for an easy layup to put the Minutemen up by one with eight seconds left. UMass’s diminutive point guard revealed later that he intended to make a pass on that play but went in for the layup when no one picked him up.

Giannini was beside himself at his team’s defense on Williams, who they had effectively blanketed up to that point. The guard came into the contest averaging 16.4 points per game but finished with only six.

“We had a lot of breakdowns,” Giannini said. “The one at the end of the game stands out most noticeably. You couldn’t possibly cover a simple ball screen worse than we did on that play.”

Following the Williams layup, La Salle was not able to recreate the magic it had against Butler last week when Galloway raced in for a game-winning layup. Instead, the Explorers settled for a feeble attempt from Jerrell Wright (16 points) that missed badly as time expired.

But Giannini knew getting a good look in the final seconds would be difficult, joking that “we would have loved for them to part the sea and let us lay it up.” Instead, the La Salle coach mostly expressed disappointment with the breakdowns his team had, which included letting big men dribble around guards and letting loose balls slip through their hands.

Of course, a big reason for those mistakes was just how good UMass is -- which is something Giannini made sure to mention throughout the postgame press conference.

“I’m phenomenally disappointed but I’m not surprised,” the La Salle coach said. “I kind of saw this coming. We had a few guys under the weather. Tyreek hasn’t practiced since the VCU game. Physically, we weren’t at our best. Mentally, I don’t think we were at our best. And then we have to run up against a really tough team like UMass and you see the result.”

That’s the way it’s going to go for La Salle the rest of the way. National exposure side, the Explorers have nine tough games left in the regular season, and they’ll likely have to win most of them to get into the NCAA tournament. And the rest of the teams in the A-10 will not make it easy.

“This is what Atlantic 10 basketball is all about,” Kellogg said. “Two pretty good teams going at it with the game coming down to the final possession.”

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