La Salle makes first NCAA tournament in 21 years

La Salle makes first NCAA tournament in 21 years
March 17, 2013, 8:00 pm
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La Salle had to wait more than two decades between NCAA tournament appearances. Then it had to wait some more – until the very end.

On Sunday, the Explorers crammed into a small room in Tom Gola Arena to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. The first three regions came and went without La Salle. The longer it went on, the more crowded and tense the atmosphere became.

Some of the Explorers sat in their seats and fidgeted while staring at the television. Others paced. Head coach John Giannini did both, getting up to stretch and walk around between bracket announcements, then sitting down again.

Tyreek Duren might have been the most nervous person of all. The junior guard said he started to sweat and his mouth got dry.

“I was super nervous,” Duren admitted. “I had the biggest headache. Everybody was texting me. After a while, I stopped texting back. I was looking at the messages but I wasn’t responding because I was so nervous. Toward the end, it looked like we weren’t going to be in there.”

And then, toward the very end, they got in there.

La Salle was one of the last teams to have its named called on Sunday. The Explorers will face Boise State (21-10) in the first round (or, if you prefer the old parlance, a play-in game) of the West Regional on Wednesday in Dayton at 9:10 p.m. The winner will advance as the No. 13 seed to play No. 4 Kansas State in Kansas City on Friday at 3:10 p.m.

When the announcement was made, the players – previously hushed and tense – leapt up and began hugging and jumping and screaming in unison. Their elation was evident, and it was a long time in the making. This will be La Salle’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991-92.

“We’re thrilled to be in the NCAA tournament and hear our names called with the best teams in the country,” Giannini said. “We think we deserve to be there. You can’t win unless you’re there ... a big step for our program is being part of this very special event, but also being recognized as one of the best teams in the country.”

It almost didn’t happen. When La Salle lost in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn on Friday, the Explorers suddenly found themselves on the bubble. La Salle needed a lot of things to go right for it over the weekend – and most did. Other bubble teams – including UMass, Southern Miss, Alabama and Maryland – lost games that might have put those schools ahead of the Explorers.

Instead, La Salle (21-9, 46 RPI, 54 BPI, 77 SOS) will finally play an NCAA tournament game after a lengthy layoff. That game, by the way, is on the same day the school will celebrate its 150th anniversary.

“It’s really big for the school,” senior guard Ramon Galloway said. “It’s really big for the program. I don’t think it’s hit me yet that we’re going dancing. I want to get there, and I want to win. You know, it’s great that we got there. It’s great for everybody in the school. But now we’ve got to make a statement that we’re in for a reason.”