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.”