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

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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.”

No. 1 Villanova vs. La Salle: Wildcats look to stay hot vs. Explorers at Palestra

No. 1 Villanova vs. La Salle: Wildcats look to stay hot vs. Explorers at Palestra

No. 1 Villanova (8-0) at La Salle (4-2) 
7 p.m. at The Palestra

Villanova, now the top-ranked team in the country, travels to the Palestra on Tuesday night for another Big 5 game, this one against La Salle (the home team), which has won three straight games.

Let's get you ready for the matchup:

Last time out
La Salle beat Bucknell, 83-73, on Saturday.

Villanova won, 88-47, over Saint Joseph’s.

Scouting report
Villanova, which is undefeated, has become the No. 1 team in the country after beating St. Joe’s handily on Saturday. Josh Hart, who had a triple-double in the game, has been a major reason for the Wildcats' success so far this season. The senior is averaging 17.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. 

La Salle has won three games in a row after losing at the buzzer to Texas Southern on its homecoming game. Against Bucknell, Jordan Price had 20 points, while B.J. Johnson had 22. Johnson, a transfer from Syracuse, leads the team in scoring with 18.7 points per game.

What it means
Villanova is the best in the country right now, and it moved up to No. 1 after Kentucky lost to UCLA. Another win will give the Wildcats good momentum heading into their Saturday matchup with No. 23 Notre Dame. A victory would also extend Villanova's all-time record Big 5 winning streak to 16 games.

La Salle head coach John Gianinni could potentially be on the hot seat if the Explorers suffer another poor season. A win against the defending national champions would alleviate any chatter about his status.

Series history
This is the first and only time the Big 5 rivals will meet this season. Jay Wright is 13-2 all-time against the Explorers, and his group blew them out last season, 76-47.

What’s next?
La Salle will head to Miami for the Hoophall Miami Invitational to take on Georgetown this Saturday at the American Airlines Arena.

Villanova travels to Newark, New Jersey, to meet No. 23 Notre Dame at the Prudential Center.

Villanova takes over No. 1 ranking in AP Top 25 poll

Villanova takes over No. 1 ranking in AP Top 25 poll

For the second time in school history — both in the last 10 months — Villanova is No. 1 in the country.

The 8-0 Wildcats received 57 of 65 first-place votes in the AP poll, moving ahead of previous No. 1 Kentucky, which lost 97-92 to UCLA on Saturday. (UCLA moved up to No. 2; Kentucky dropped to No. 6.)

Villanova had a pair of Big 5 games last week, beating Penn by 25 at the Palestra and St. Joe's by 31 at The Pavilion.

Dating back to last season, Villanova has won 14 straight games and a national championship. Jay Wright's team has won 19 of its last 20.

The Wildcats have been led by seniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Hart opted to forego the NBA draft and return to school after winning the title and, so far, the decision has paid off. His shooting percentages are up significantly and if he keeps it up, his draft stock will reflect that improvement. Hart is shooting a career-best 58 percent from the field and is up to 43 percent from three. As productive as Hart was last season, his long-distance shooting had dropped from 46 percent as a sophomore to 36 percent as a junior.

Hart is averaging 17.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Jenkins is averaging 14.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists. Jenkins has carried the confidence of his championship-winning three over into this season. He's shooting 45 percent from three and 94 percent from the line. 

Villanova plays twice this week, vs. La Salle (4-2) on Tuesday and vs. ACC-leading Notre Dame (8-0) Saturday.

Temple receives votes
Temple (6-2) was unranked but received three votes. Based on the votes received by other teams, it makes Temple the de facto No. 36 team in the country.

The Owls have won five in a row, including victories over then-No. 25 Florida State, then-No. 19 West Virginia, and two Big 5 wins last week over St. Joe's and Penn.

Temple faces George Washington on Wednesday and DePaul Saturday.