Maybe all of La Salle’s games should be in the morning.
On Tuesday, the Explorers woke up at the crack of dawn, jumped out of bed and didn’t hit the snooze button on their fundamentals for a 9 a.m. ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon contest vs. Quinnipiac at Tom Gola Arena.
Despite a poor shooting performance, La Salle took care of the basketball, crashed the boards effectively against one of the county’s best rebounding teams and played the kind of defense that coach John Giannini craves in a hard-fought 73-67 victory on national television (see Instant Replay).
“Everything about the stat sheet is terrific, except for the fact that we made only 38 percent of our shots and the big guys struggled from the free-throw line too,” Giannini said. “We held them to 38 percent. And [committing] four turnovers in a game [is] astounding.”
The best part for Giannini is that the Explorers matched Quinnipiac in rebounding with each team collecting 43 boards. That was significant because the Bobcats had outrebounded their opponent in each of the last 33 games and led the nation in rebounding last season. The Explorers, meanwhile, were hammered on the boards in their season-opening loss to Manhattan on Saturday.
But against Quinnipiac, eight different Explorers collected at least two rebounds with forward Jerrell Wright leading the way with 12 and Steve Zack (15 points) and D.J. Peterson each grabbing six.
“It was a challenge that Coach G put in front of us,” said senior point guard Tyreek Duren, who had five rebounds to go along with his team-high 17 points and six assists. “He said we either go out today and rebound or he’s going to make changes in the lineup. People stepped up.”
One of those players who stepped up was senior Tyrone Garland, who didn’t have any rebounds in 44 minutes against Manhattan.
Because of that glaring stat, he started Tuesday’s game on the bench … but finished it by grabbing a huge defensive rebound in the final minute to help seal the win.
“We were playing one of the best rebounding teams in the country and I tried to play guys that showed more interest in rebounding Saturday,” Giannini said when asked why Garland didn’t start. “But I didn’t start Ramon [Galloway] against Butler last year and he was fine. I think if you don’t address things when someone doesn’t do his best, I think that’s bad coaching. I’ve done it before, and it doesn’t go well. We want to address things and see if guys respond. And I thought Ty responded today.”
As for the shooting, that didn’t bother Giannini, who always stresses defense first because he knows his team is filled with offensive stars who won’t stay in a slump for long.
Against the Bobcats, La Salle shot just 38.5 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range and 69 percent from the free throw line. But the Explorers did make six free throws in the final two minutes to ice the game and pull away from a stubborn Quinnipiac team that tied the game twice in the second half.
“Sometimes you shoot 70 percent and sometimes you shoot 35 percent,” Giannini said. “And at the end of the year, it averages out to 46, 47 percent.”
While a six-point home win against a team like Quinnipiac might not seem like anything to write home about, especially for a team that made it to the Sweet 16 last season, Giannini made sure to stress that Tuesday's opponent, just like Manhattan, was a good one picked to finish near the top of their conference.
But he also stressed to his team that starting the season 0-2 was not an option.
“We were pretty direct and emphatic with our team that we went the whole regular season last year without losing two games in a row,” Giannini said. “And we were darn sure we weren’t going to do it in our first two this year.
“And we went all last year losing two at home in 30-plus games. And we were darn sure we weren’t going to do it in two games this year.”
Jerrell Wright led the way on the boards, grabbing 12 of the Explorers' 43 rebounds. (USA Today Images)