BY JOE FEDOROWICZ
For some time tonight, it appeared as though there was some magic left in the Tom Gola Arena. It took a Jordair Jett runner with under three seconds left to put away La Salle, 65-63, after the Explorers hung tough throughout much of the game.
“I’ve done this so long and I’m still shocked at how small the difference between winning and losing is. Manhattan, one play. VCU, one play. Saint Louis, one play,” John Giannini explained after the game. “We haven’t done what we wanted to this year, but if you look at the margin, it is three plays. Last year, we were 7-1 in games like this. This year, we’re 0-3. The difference is shockingly small.”
La Salle was led by Jerrell Wright, who finished with 21 points and eight rebounds. Wright was unstoppable at times, but the Explorers struggled to get him the ball late. Steve Zack and Tyreek Duren joined him in double figures, scoring 15 and 14 respectively. Zack finished with another double-double, also grabbing 13 rebounds.
Having scored the first seven points of the second half, Wright would finish with just three more in the game’s closing minutes. The Billikens seemed to push the frontline player further away from the basket, not allowing him to work.
“They put a huge human being on him and never left him. They pressed up against him and never left him,” Giannini said about the defensive change. “We’d like to get him the ball every time, but Saint Louis had different plans.”
Saint Louis coach Jim Crews explained it differently.
“I have no idea,” the second year coach said. “I’d like to look smart and say we changed something. Maybe we packed it in a little bit.”
Saint Louis hopped out to an early lead, taking a 10-4 advantage at the first media timeout. With multiple scoring options on the floor, La Salle struggled to cover all of the open Billiken players and soon found themselves down 19-10.
When Rob Loe, picked up his second foul in the first four minutes, La Salle was able to go on a 10-2 run. The one-point deficit was short lived, however, as Saint Louis answered with an 8-0 run of their own. With time running out in the first half, La Salle chipped away at the lead.
Loe, who averages over 10 points per game, was held to just four tonight.
“We prepared for him all week,” Wright explained about the strategy on the big senior. “We knew he was going to shoot the ball. I just had to check the guards and recover.”
Saint Louis, on what should have been the final possession of the half, actually turned the ball over with just under four seconds remaining. Duren inbounded to Zack, who immediately age it back to the senior point guard. Duren streak through the lane and rose high, laying up a runner that did nothing but hit the bottom of the net. La Salle would go into the locker room tied at 33, running with the #13 ranked team in the country.
Wright caused much of the damage in the first half, leading the Explorers with 11 points over the first 20 minutes. La Salle had only five players score in the first half, but it was three players that did majority of the work. Wright, Duren and Zack combined for 85-percent of their team’s points before the first horn, with Duren and Zack adding nine and eight, respectively.
Coming out in the second half, the two teams remained evenly matched until Wright again carried his team. In a series of possessions, the big man scored seven consecutive points, capped by an explosive dunk off a nice alley-oop from Tyrone Garland. The slam gave the Explorers a three point lead, their largest of the game.
“They adjusted,” Wright said, that alley oop being one of his final buckets. “I wasn’t worried about scoring points. It was the flow of the game. If they stopped me, I knew it was a chance to get the guards the ball.”
The lead would be short-lived, as Jordair Jett would soon take the offensive controls for Saint Louis. The senior guard went on a run that would rival any of this season. With the Billikens trailing by two, Jett scored 16 of his team’s next 18 points, doing his damage at the rim and from the foul line. The run by Jett and Saint Louis would give them a seven-point advantage with just under four minutes remaining.
Jett finished with 25 points and would score 19 in the second half, while the rest of his team would add just 13 in total for the final 20 minutes.
“We couldn’t guard Jordair Jett off the dribble,” said Giannini about the defensive struggles. “They gave him the ball 25 feet from the basket and said “go to work.” That is the play that worked for them. That is the sophistication to what they did.”
If he doesn’t have a career in the NBA, he could play in the NFL if his 40 time is good. His strength, his mental toughness and his physicality are at the highest level. ~John Giannini
Coming out of the media timeout, the Explorers began to chip away. First, it was a Garland layup, followed by two free throws from the speedy senior. On the ensuing possession, Duren would drive, only to see the ball knocked away. The Explorers’ leader grabbed it and calmly stroked a three-pointer, tying the game at 61. Jett would score on the next possession, leading to a chance for La Salle to tie the game.
On the first attempt, La Salle was disorganized and the play resulted in a deep Garland three-pointer that was wide. Sam Mills corralled the rebound, calling timeout. On their next play, Duren would hit the runner tying the game and leading to the final possession.
On that last play, Saint Louis elected to not call a timeout. La Salle was set, but Jett streaked into the lane and hit the layup almost untouched. Like he had multiple times in that half, the Saint Louis senior was just unstoppable in the lane.
The Garland heave would go long and La Salle would fall short.
“We did recover from it,” Giannini said about the VCU loss, which was very similar to this one. “Fortunately, we have a week off. But it is completely devastating.”
SCORING STRUGGLES: Outside the trio of Wright, Zack and Duren, La Salle players scored just 13 points in 93 minutes. Garland finished 2-8 for six points and Sam Mills was just 1-1 for three points. The duo of Rohan Brown and Khalid Lewis was 2-7 from the field combined, each scoring two points.
“I’m amused when people always say, ‘Why didn’t this guy get more shots,” Giannini said about the rest of his team’s lack of production. “It doesn’t work that way. We’re calling out our plays, they’re calling out their plays.”
ZACK ATTACK: Zack finished with another double-double, his 11th this season. The big junior was saddled with the task of slowing down strong interior player Dwayne Evans, who finished with 14 points.
“Steve’s battle with Dwayne Evans was epic,” said his coach. “Looking at the stat sheet, Zack played a game at the highest level. He neutralized a very high level player.”
ALMOST AT 1000: Coming into this game, Wright needed 29 points to reach 1000. He will need eight points when La Salle takes on St. Joseph’s.
UP NEXT: La Salle will take on St. Joseph’s at Tom Gola Arena next week. Philahoops will have live coverage.