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

slideshow-032813-lasalle-team-uspresswire.jpg

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.”

St. Joe's honors A-10 championship team as focus turns to 2016-17 season

st-joes-a-10-title-rings.jpg
Sideline Photos

St. Joe's honors A-10 championship team as focus turns to 2016-17 season

Picked to finish seventh in the 2015-16 Atlantic 10 preseason poll, the Saint Joseph’s Hawks were all but written off before their season even began. 

Fast forward a year or so later, those same Hawks gathered on the first day of school on Monday in the Ramsay Basketball Center for a special ring ceremony to commemorate their A-10 championship. 

To help give out the rings, head coach Phil Martelli was able to gather members of past St. Joe’s A-10 championship teams: Rodney Blake and Bruiser Flint from the 1986 team, Pat Carroll from the 2004 team, and most recently Daryus Quarles from the 2014 team. 

Notably missing from the ceremony was A-10 and Big 5 Player of the Year DeAndre' Bembry, a first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks, and Isaiah Miles, who has begun his professional career in France with JDA Dijon. 

Aaron Brown, the team’s third graduated senior and another key cog of that championship run, was able to attend before heading off to start his pro career in Iceland. 

Martelli, addressing a room full of players, coaches, family and friends, made it clear just what it means to wear that ring and represent St. Joe’s as A-10 champions. 

“Championships last with you for a long time, if not forever, and we’re getting the opportunity to share that with these players, their families and some really special people in the room,” Martelli said. “People are going to have some tough times; they’re going to lose loved ones, they’re going to lose possessions, they’re going to lose jobs, but forever this group of players is going to be the 2016 Atlantic 10 champions.”

The 2015-16 Hawks finished the regular season with a 28-8 record, good enough for second-best in school history. They won their fourth A-10 championship, made their second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years and came a few points shy of a Sweet 16 appearance. 

A simply remarkable season for a team that won just 13 games the year before. However, as with any sport, when one season ends the focus is already on next year. 

"We knew in the beginning, since I’ve had this job, that each year is a separate entity and each team is a separate group," Martelli said. "Obviously the talent changes, we had a first-round draft pick, we had a great player in Isaiah Miles, so we had all-league players. Now it’s really the question of who's next and what expectations do they have for carrying the ball. Everybody gets a chance, and this group now has that opportunity."

Lamar Kimble, a 2015-16 A-10 All-Rookie selection, is one player who will be counted on following the recent departures of Bembry, Miles and Brown. Despite being just a sophomore, Kimble knows he’s ready for a more expanded role this season.
 
"I've always been a leader, but I definitely see a bigger role this year in terms of scoring and facilitating," Kimble said. "I'm definitely ready to [have a bigger role], I’m looking to have more goals than last year rather than just All-Rookie, so there’s definitely big dreams for me."

Regardless of the success that St. Joe’s saw last year, both the players and coaches recognize that a new season has begun. Prior to the ceremony and reception, the Hawks went through a routine summer practice. Players realize the work and effort that must be put in if they want to replicate last season’s run. 

“It just starts from the older guys, you know, letting the younger guys know that what we did last year doesn’t fold over to the next year, we still have to work as hard as possible to get to where we need to get to,” Kimble said. “I think that’s the mind set we had this whole summer, going into the year now we have that same mind set where we want to get back to where we were at, that’s the position we want to be in.”

Martelli, entering his 22nd year on Hawk hill, looked out and addressed the crowd one last time after sliding his fifth championship ring (four A-10 titles and one from the 2004 undefeated regular season) onto his finger. 

“Championships are won and championships are lost,” he said, “but the Hawk will never die.”

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

justin-watson-penn.png
Photo: Dave Zeitlin

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.

“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.

Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.

“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”

Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.

“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”

In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.

“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”

Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”

Watson says he’s ready for anything.

“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”

In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.

But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.

“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.

“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all. 

“And they’ll keep coming in.”

Penn State tries to move forward without abandoning Joe Paterno

ap-joe-paterno_0.jpg
AP

Penn State tries to move forward without abandoning Joe Paterno

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Legends tend to linger in college football even after they are gone. At Penn State, getting out from under Joe Paterno's shadow is more complicated than the typical transition from a coaching giant.

After being the most stable — in many ways stagnant — football program in the country for nearly five decades, Penn State has been awash in change in the five years since Jerry Sandusky became infamous and dragged down Paterno with him.

Moving forward has required Penn State's new leaders to perform a most difficult maneuver: Distancing the school from a child sexual-abuse scandal that drew worldwide attention and shook Happy Valley, while not appearing to abandon the memory of the coach who many Penn Staters believe gave the university an identity for which they can still be proud.

"I think that is the ultimate challenge here," Penn State coach James Franklin told The Associated Press. "How do you balance the history, the traditions, all the wonderful things that are deep rooted here and have been here forever, (while) also making moves that you need to be progressive and to be moving towards a healthy present and a healthy future."

Franklin is entering his third season at Penn State. For the first time this season, Franklin will have the full allotment of 85 scholarships available when the Nittany Lions open at home against Kent State on Saturday. Penn State has gone 7-6 each of Franklin's first two years.

Moving forward at Penn State, though, is not just about getting past NCAA scholarship sanctions and bowl bans.

For Franklin, the 44-year-old first African-American football coach in Penn State history, one challenge is trying to get former players to actively support a program that no longer feels like home.

"The ones that have come back and been around us and spent time with us and come to practice have been really good," the former Vanderbilt coach said. "But there's been a group of guys that haven't been back because once again there's a fracture. There's still hurt feelings. It's not as just simple as the new coach."

Paterno coached at Penn State for 46 seasons. He was fired by the school's board of trustees days after Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator, was arrested in November 2011 for molesting and raping boys. Paterno died two and a half months later of lung cancer.

The statue of Paterno was removed from outside Beaver Stadium on July 22, 2012. Paterno's name is still on the campus library built in part by his donations, but highly visible and university sponsored signs of him are hard to find.

"I think Penn State needs to embrace Joe Paterno for who he was, for what he did at Penn State, unequivocally and without hesitation," said Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State alum and elected member of the board of trustees.

Lubrano said the university at minimum needs to apologize to Paterno's wife, Sue, display the statue again and rename the stadium Paterno Field at Beaver Stadium.

While juggling wishes of ardent supporters like Lubrano, university leadership is also trying to convey to those for whom Paterno will never be completely redeemed that Penn State's values were not tied directly to one man.

Splits in the relationship between Penn State and its supporters can take a practical toll on the university and athletic department's ability to compete with Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten. According to a university report, private support and donations to Penn State have seesawed widely since the scandal, from a high of $274.8 million in 2011 to $226 million in 2015.

Penn State's average attendance the last four seasons is 98,685, among the best in the country. But Beaver Stadium seats 107,000-plus and 9,000 empty seats per game costs the athletic department millions.

Athletic director Sandy Barbour and her team are considering a massive facilities upgrade, including either a renovation or a rebuild of the 56-year-old stadium. Donors will be needed, but the mere suggestion of taking down the stadium was not well received by some fans, Barbour said.

Barbour and Franklin try to stress that they will protect the things Paterno left behind that Penn Staters value most: Continuing Paterno's so-called Grand Experiment of prioritizing academics and character and winning the right way.

"Depending on their position people may look at him differently, but it doesn't change that he created that here. Or helped to create that here," said Barbour, the former California AD.

As outsiders trying to lead an athletic department that had the same face for nearly 50 years, Barbour and Franklin understand full support and acceptance will take time. Winning more football games would help, but there's a chicken-and-egg relationship between support and winning.

"I think we are still going through a healing process. I think what made Penn State successful for so long, and I think if you look at the programs across the country that were having success at the highest levels, everybody's aligned," Franklin said. "The head football coach, the athletic director, the president, the board and the alumni. That's what Penn State was for a long time. We need to get back to that to be the program that everybody wants us to be."

Many in the Penn State community are not yet ready to let go of how the school and Paterno were blamed and punished for the crimes of Sandusky, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence.

"And what many Penn Staters believe that the entirety of the Penn State community was accused of is really difficult for them to process," Barbour said. "That as a Penn State alum, as a Penn State employee, they're being painted with that brush."

The Paterno family and their staunchest supporters, including some of Penn State's most famous football alumni such as Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, have dug in on redeeming the coach.

"Since Joe Paterno died, a lot of people suddenly got brave and said a lot of things about him that weren't true because he couldn't defend himself," Jay Paterno, Joe's son and a former Penn State assistant coach, said in a recent speech to the Lake Erie Alumni Association.

The latest round of allegations came in May from unsealed court documents, with an alleged Sandusky victim saying he complained to Paterno about Sandusky in 1976 and was rebuffed. University President Eric Barron responded with a carefully worded defense of the school and Paterno.

"None of these allegations about the supposed knowledge of university employees has been substantiated in a court of law or in any other process to test their veracity," Barron said.

But Barron, Barbour and Franklin can only go so far in their recognition of Paterno.

The 50th anniversary of Paterno's first game as Penn State coach is Sept. 17, when the Nittany Lions host Temple. There is a celebration in the works and a dinner being planned for family members, friends and former players in the State College area the night before the game. No event is scheduled yet to acknowledge the anniversary at Beaver Stadium.

"No matter what position as leadership you take on the continuum, there are others that are going to criticize," Barbour said. "Those that think that Penn State's not been stood up for enough. There are those that think Coach Paterno has not been stood up for enough. There are those that think Coach Paterno has been stood up for too much. It's all along the continuum. For leadership, really for anybody, that's a challenge."

Penn State football will never be the same, but there is hope for those who believe some things should never change.

"Have these times been difficult?" senior offensive lineman Andrew Nelson said. "Yeah, sure. But Penn State is defined by the tradition, you know? It's defined by the academics. It's defined by the type of guys that come play here. It doesn't matter exactly who's sitting in that head coaching position, we have special things here. After a while, Coach Franklin really helped us buy into that. And he bought into that, too. What makes Penn State special will always be here."