Sam Mills' crunch-time defense vital in La Salle's narrow wins

Sam Mills' crunch-time defense vital in La Salle's narrow wins
March 25, 2013, 3:30 pm
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – With 4:57 left and La Salle down by three, Explorers coach John Giannini called a timeout to go over defensive assignments.

Everybody knew Marshall Henderson would be the guy to take all the big shots down the stretch for Mississippi. Henderson, one of the leading scorers in Division-I at 20.1 points per game, had already taken 17 shots and scored 21 points, and with his unlimited range and ability to find open space coming off screens, Giannini knew where the ball was going to go with the game on the line.

Everybody knew.

Ramon Galloway had defended Henderson most of the game Sunday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, but with the NCAA West region quarterfinal game entering crunch time, with the season on the line, with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line, Giannini wanted junior defensive specialist Sam Mills on Henderson.

It was Mills who two nights earlier had forced Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez into a miss in the lane with La Salle nursing a two-point lead in the final seconds.

But this was Marshall Henderson, one of the most unique scorers in college basketball.

“Ramon really wanted to guard 22, Henderson,” Giannini said. “And all our guys are good defenders, that’s why we switch, that’s why we’ve had success.

“But what I told [Galloway] at the timeout was, ‘Let Sam guard him. This is why I recruited him. He’s tough. He’s a great defender. Let Sam win this game for us.’

“And when Ramon heard it that way it was like, ‘Of course. Sam can shut him down,’ and that’s how we all feel about him.”

You know what happened next.

Just like Friday night, Mills’ brilliant defense won an NCAA tournament game for the Explorers.

He made Henderson take a difficult, off-balance shot near the basket, and even though Henderson rebounded, there was no time left on the shot clock, and the violation gave La Salle the ball with 31 seconds left, setting up Tyrone Garland’s dramatic game-winner.

La Salle’s 74-72 win, its second two-point tournament win in three days, propelled the Explorers to their first Sweet 16 in 58 years. They’ll face Wichita State at about 10:17 p.m. Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

La Salle, bidding to become the first 13-seed to reach the Elite Eight, is known for its high-powered offense, but all their guards can defend, and nobody is better than Mills.

“I knew Henderson down the stretch was going to try to make tough shots,” Mills said. “So I was just trying to zone in on him and just try to make each shot contested and try to make it hard for him.”

Henderson made only one basket in the game’s last nine minutes. Over the final 6½ minutes, he was 0-for-3 from the field with a turnover.

Not surprisingly, Henderson wasn’t in the mood to credit Mills for his defense on Mississippi’s final possession.

“He fouled me,” Henderson said in the Ole Miss locker room. “The ref told me he fouled me. He told me he’s not going to call a foul with a second left on the shot clock. I told him that’s B.S. I don’t care if there is one-10th of a second left on it, you’ve got to call that foul, especially when you tell me it’s a foul. He took off my whole left arm.”

What Henderson saw as a foul La Salle saw as great defense.

“He gave Sam the defensive assignment to lock him down [and] everybody has great confidence in Sam,” Galloway said. “At the end of the game, Sam made every shot for him tough. Without Sam playing that great defense, we wouldn’t have won that game.”

Mills isn’t a bad offensive player. He scored 10 big points in the Kansas State game and added eight Sunday against Mississippi, including one of La Salle’s biggest baskets – a deep left-wing three with 4:01 left after Ole Miss had opened up an ominous five-point lead.

But it’s defense that makes him a great player.

“I take defense very, very seriously,” Mills said in the jubilant La Salle locker room late Sunday night. “Defense has always been my thing. Offense comes and goes each game, so I try to zone in on defense.

“I try to focus on the little things I can do for my team. It doesn’t matter if I score or not. I just want to be out there and do the little things to help us win. I don’t care how many points I score.”

Henderson didn’t shoot well in the NCAA tournament, making just 14 of 42 shots and seven of 27 from three.

But he’s obviously dangerous. And shutting him down in the closing minutes was the key to La Salle moving on.

“He moves without the ball as well as anyone anywhere,” Giannini said. “Henderson [is] harder to guard before he gets the ball than after.

“They run that offense through him. You see they have those 6-9, 260-pound huge individuals screening for him on both sides, and he puts his head under that basket and he’ll swing this way, and if you cut him off he’ll go the other way and it’s really hard to be there on the catch against him, because they’re screening for him, and he’s sprinting a million miles an hour and he’s good at reading it -- which way you’re leaning and maybe nudging you and coming off the opposite way.

“So what Sam did was big time. He was terrific.”

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