By Joseph Santoliquito
Los Angeles, CA (CBS) — The dream run was bound to end. La Salle had defied so many odds to reach the Sweet 16. They played four guards. They were small and fast—and small and fast can only last so long against those thoroughbred teams that have speed, and size, that can shoot—and are hot. White hot.
That’s what La Salle ran into Thursday night at the Staples Center. One of those teams. A Wichita State team that seemed to have all the properties Elite Eight teams are supposed to have. A team with size, speed and is scorching hot.
The Shockers (29-8) took off and never peered back in trampling La Salle, 72-58, to advance to the Elite Eight of the tournament against West region No. 2 seed Ohio State on Saturday. The Explorers’ amazing season closed at 24-10.
La Salle had to dig out of a deep hole from the outset.
Less than seven minutes into the game, Wichita State surged out to a 17-3 lead. La Salle never led, though the Explorers pulled within 19-11 and 25-17. It was as close as they would get.
La Salle trailed 38-22 at halftime on 8-for-30 shooting (26.7 percent), and 3-for-8 from three-point range. The Explorers were outrebounded 27-14. The Shockers did to the small Explorers what Boise State, Kansas State and Mississippi didn’t do—that’s get the ball inside. The Shockers scored 24 of their 38 first-half points in the paint.
Ramon Galloway and Tyrone Garland, two major reasons why La Salle reach the Sweet 16, were a combined 4-for-19 in the first half. La Salle rushed their shots and had trouble shooting over the taller, out-stretched arms of the Shockers.
Ron Baker threw daggers into La Salle’s chances. His trey in the opening of the second half gave the Shockers their largest edge, 44-22, with 18:49 left to play. Baker ripped the Explorers again later in the second half, nailing another three-pointer off a La Salle turnover that gave the Shockers a 47-32 lead, with 14:05 left.
With 10:48 remaining, a pair of Sam Mills’ free throws pulled the Explorers within 51-40. But each time La Salle clawed within sniffing range, the Shockers would rebound a miss, after a bad shot, or beat the smaller Explorers on the boards again.
Jerrell Wright emerged in this tournament for the Explorers, and played well again against Wichita State, scoring 16 points. Garland and his “Southwest Philly Floater” also had 16, Galloway concluded an impressive La Salle career with 11.
Wichita State was led by Malcolm Armstead’s 18, Carl Hall’s 16 points and eight rebounds and Baker’s 13.
And though there was an overflow of emotion pouring out of the Explorers after the game, many La Salle fans, many Philly hoops fans, will always remember this team. It’s the team that revived La Salle basketball, with its first NCAA berth in 21 years, and the first time the program won three NCAA Tournament games since the Explorers were NCAA runners-up in 1955.
Even when they were struggling, they still fought. They still played hard.
Galloway will be the only major loss for Explorers’ coach John Giannini, who returns Wright, Garland, Tyreek Duren and the nucleus of a team that could begin next season as a top-25 program.
It was an end. But in many ways, this La Salle team marked a beginning.