ATLANTIC 10 MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The La Salle Explorers have done something quite remarkable over the past week. They haven’t just won three NCAA tournament games in a five-day span; they’ve produced a body of work that has eclipsed the past half-century of hoops at the venerable Philadelphia school.
Yes, it’s a great time to be an Explorer. La Salle will be exploring the Sweet 16 this Thursday in Los Angeles after winning a First Four NCAA tournament play-in game, followed by two more wins in the West Region this past weekend in Kansas City. A victory over Boise State in Dayton, followed by a pair of triumphs over power-conference teams Kansas State and Ole Miss, have vaulted the No. 13 seed into the Sweet 16. Had Florida Gulf Coast not hit the headlines with its historic charge into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, La Salle would be receiving even more national coverage as the ultimate darling in college basketball.
Let’s put La Salle’s achievements in perspective: In nine NCAA appearances from 1968 through 1992, the Explorers won a total of two NCAA tournament games, one in 1983 and one in 1990. The last time La Salle made a deep run in March was in the 1955 NCAA Tournament. Coach Ken Loeffler led the Explorers to the national championship game, losing to San Francisco. The year before, in 1954, La Salle won its only national title, beating Bradley for NCAA supremacy. It had been a long time since La Salle – the alma mater of noted CBS basketball analyst Bill Raftery – had made this deep an imprint on the college basketball world, but the Explorers, led by fearless guards Ramon Galloway and Tyrone Garland, have re-emerged in full force.
A decisive win over Boise State in the First Four last Wednesday was surprising in its ease. The win over Kansas State on Friday was the most impressive performance for the Explorers this past week, because La Salle was playing what amounted to a road game in Kansas City. La Salle didn’t hit a field goal in the final 7:55 of regulation, but it still managed to dig out a gritty win because of the clutch foul shooting of Jerrell Wright, a 62-percent free throw shooter who went 9 of 10 at the stripe, 3 of 4 in the final minute of regulation. Sunday’s win over Ole Miss was a feat simply because La Salle had to play through fatigue due to its First Four game on Wednesday. Yet, adrenaline helped the Explorers to fight to the finish, and because of 24 points from Galloway, La Salle was able to play the more rested Rebels on even terms. At the very end, Garland answered the call, scoring on a nifty, swooping layup with 2.5 seconds left to break and tie and unleash a wild celebration that will carry through the week in Philadelphia.
La Salle is the Atlantic 10’s lone representative in the Sweet 16, but it will not face a top seed as a huge underdog. La Salle will be able to play the West Regional semifinals on very even terms because it will face ninth-seeded Wichita State, another upstart and anything but a heavyweight.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic 10, the league still gained a lot from this NCAA tournament, procuring six win shares from the round of 64 and the First Four. The A-10 went 5-0 in the round of 64, making a name for itself before getting thinned to one team.
Butler stopped Bucknell in the East Region, throttling the Bison with an unrelenting defensive performance. Virginia Commonwealth scored a 46-point win over Akron, reminding national viewers of its prowess on defense. Saint Louis smothered New Mexico State before bowing out of the tournament against Oregon in the round of 32. Temple bested North Carolina State thanks to a ball-hawking defense. Whereas other conferences fell flat on their faces, the Atlantic 10 turned in a strong showing. It could have used more than one team in the Sweet 16, but it will still take six NCAA wins, with La Salle offering a chance for even more.
In the CBI, Richmond kept the flame burning for the A-10 with a first-round victory last week over Bryant.