La Salle's dream season comes to end in Sweet 16

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La Salle's dream season comes to end in Sweet 16

BOX SCORE

LOS ANGELES -- The La Salle section at Staples Center was across from the Explorers’ bench and just behind press row. It was overflowing with La Salle students and alumni and fans. So many of them were wearing blue and gold and giant smiles before tipoff. Their gear didn’t change as the game went on, but their expressions did.

You could see it on their faces -- a worried look here, a shake of the head there. They knew the way things were going. It was obvious to everyone in the building.

The Explorers were a great story this season. They posted a school record for conference victories. They made their first NCAA Tournament in 21 years. They won three tournament games in five days, which was one more Big Dance victory than the program mustered in the previous 57 years combined. They reached their first Sweet 16 since 1955, and they became just the second team in NCAA history to go from the First Four play-in round to the Sweet 16.

It was an amazing run. It was a memorable run. It was the kind of run people will talk fondly about for a long time. And now it’s over.

The 13th-seeded Explorers lost to ninth-seeded Wichita State on Thursday, 72-58 (see Instant Replay). La Salle (24-10) trailed the entire game. The Shockers (29-8) will play second-seeded Ohio State on Saturday in the West Region Elite Eight.

“We have a great group here,” La Salle head coach John Giannini said. “I think everyone on our team has a great feeling about this year. They have a great feeling about each other. I think they’ve gotten better as a team, as players and as people.”

Giannini -- who said that Wichita State won the game in the first half and “overwhelmed us” -- noted that it took the Explorers a while to “adjust to the level they were playing at.” His feelings on the matter were shared by those who watched from the crowd. At one point, someone sitting in the stands near La Salle legend Lionel Simmons yelled out that the Explorers should “pick up the pace.” It was a good idea. It was also a lot easier to say than do.

The Shockers have eight players who are 6-5 or taller. Giannini predicted that might be a problem for the Explorers, a smaller, guard-oriented team. He was right. Wichita State dominated La Salle on the glass, outrebounding the Explorers, 47-29. The Shockers also scored 40 points in the paint (compared to 26 for La Salle).

That part -- Wichita State’s sizeable size advantage -- was expected. What wasn’t expected, what surprised a lot of people, was how quick the Shockers turned out to be. The Explorers won their first three games of the tournament, in part, because they were faster than their opponents -- able to get around defenders and go to the basket or kick the ball back out and nail jumpers from the perimeter.

That wasn’t the case on Thursday. The Shockers were every bit as quick as the Explorers. In a highly unusual development, La Salle didn’t have any fastbreak points.

“Most teams we’re quicker than, but their quickness was surprising,” Giannini said. “They’re very impressive. They’re as good as anyone we played all year.”

Compounding the problem was the fact that La Salle didn’t have a great shooting night. Or even a good shooting night. The Explorers hit just 35.7 percent from the floor and 38.9 from three-point range.

Wichita State did an excellent job defending Ramon Galloway. The senior guard had three solid outings to start the tournament, scoring 21 points against Boise State, 19 against Kansas State and 24 against Ole Miss. Against the Shockers, however, Galloway made just four of his 15 shots from the field (2 for 6 from distance) for 11 points.

The rest of the team wasn’t much better. Tyrone Garland (5 for 15 from the field) and Jerrell Wright led the Explorers with 16 points each. No one else on La Salle scored in double figures.

“They were all over the place defensively,” Garland said. “They came to play. I can honestly say, by far, one of the most physical teams we’ve played. They were after it. They won every 50-50 ball almost, and they got every rebound they needed to get.”

Though they denied that fatigue was a factor, it’s possible the Explorers were a bit tired. They haven’t been back to Philly since beginning their run more than a week ago. La Salle played four games in nine days, making stops in Dayton, Kansas City and Los Angeles, and traveling a total of 2,754 miles.

Despite the defeat, the Explorers had an incredible season. Only six La Salle teams have won more games in a single season than this group. And the Explorers became just the fifth 13 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16, joining Bradley (2006), Oklahoma (1999), Richmond (1988) and Valparaiso (1998).

When the game was over, the La Salle section of the Staples Center stood and applauded. The Explorers and Giannini walked over and waved and thanked them.

“I want to thank every student, every staff member, everybody from the janitors to everybody who helped out at La Salle,” Galloway said. “Without them, there wouldn’t be a La Salle. You’ve got to have people who come and help out. It means a lot to us. I want to thank everybody in the La Salle community. They were proud of us and we were proud of them.”

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."