BY JOE FEDOROWICZ
As the last Big Five contest of the year and final Atlantic 10 regular season game on the schedule, there was just slight buzz before the start of this one. The Hawks had some to lose, as they were now firmly inside the tournament and would need a collapse to fall out. La Salle, on the other hand, was secure in the 8 vs. 9 game on Thursday in Brooklyn, the only advantage being the consideration as home team.
Though the Hawks would lead in the early going, the Explorers used a 17-3 run over the final eight minutes of the first half. In the end, however, it was Tyreek Duren‘s clutch play from the field and the line, going 16-17 from the stripe, that sealed the win for La Salle.
“He is the guy we want with the ball,” La Salle coach John Giannini said of his senior point guard. “He deserves all the credit. I think right now he understands how important he is to our team. For him to have the ball.”
Duren, who led the way, scored 27 points on 5-12 shooting. His damage came from the stripe, where he hit 11 of his last 12, all of which were the last points for La Salle. Jerrell Wright finished with a double-double, scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Wright had only three points after the first break, but was vital to the Explorers success in the second half.
“I came out with the same mindset,” Wright said, when asked what changed. “The guards fed me the whole time. They had the confidence in me.”
La Salle also got a great game from Sam Mills, who added 6 points, five assists and five steals in an all around great effort.
The loss was the second straight for St. Joseph’s, their first losing streak since dropping back to back Big 5 games to Temple and Villanova in early December. Today, on Senior Night, however, the Hawks looked disjointed and struggled to get in an offensive flow.
“I apologized to the team because I didn’t have them ready,” coach Phil Martelli admitted after the game. “I didn’t see it coming. Really, for the first time in my career, Senior day was too emotional for some of them. I addressed it with a couple different guys.”
The seniors were actually the saving grace for the Hawks, as Langston Galloway led the way for St. Joseph’s, finishing with 26 points. Freshman DeAndre Bembry and fellow senior Ron Roberts added 15 and 13, respectively.
“I don’t see (senior nights) as that emotional. Some people will say that is cold, but I see it as a celebration of a remarkable achievement. I think the way you honor the seniors is you play your best game of the year.
In the first three minutes, the Hawks found themselves with a 7-2 lead that was stretched to 16-10 not soon thereafter. La Salle stormed back, taking the lead on a Mills layup and continuing the run, opening up a 10-point, 33-23 lead going into the locker room. The Explorers shot just 37.9-percent in the first 20 minutes, but capitalized on 10 St. Joseph’s turnovers. The Hawks were dismal from the floor, shooting 30.8-percent.
“I don’t think we’ve played a worse first half,” Martelli said. “We were 4-17 on two-point shots.”
In the second half, the Hawks came out on fire, cutting the lead in half on the first two possessions. The run would be short-lived, however, as La Salle soon opened up a 13-point advantage. Free throw shooting really doomed St. Joseph’s as the Hawks were just 6-16 on the day. At one point, the duo of Roberts and Bembry missed four in a row, continuing a season long problem for Phil Martelli‘s team.
The Explorers frustrated the Hawks throughout the game, focusing on stopping Langston Galloway. Though the senior finished his night in the high 20s, the rest of the offense struggled.
“Ingenious plan, box and one on Langston,” Martelli said of La Salle’s defense. “They also did some things with Ron and Halil that made it difficult.”
Giannini talked about defense after the loss to George Mason, admitting that he should play more zone in big spots. Today, there was a firm mix of zone, man and box and one.
We mixed up our defenses a lot. Not only the box and one,” Giannini said of the gameplan. “They’re so veteran and such a good passing team. We wanted to do everything possible to make every possession just a little bit harder.”
With the lead at eight and the Hawks needed a stop, Duren continued his tremendous Big 5 play and broke to the rim. The senior finished the falling layup and was fouled, converting on the free throw. This game marked the Philly native’s last Big 5 tilt, finishing a city series career that will rival most anyone else’s.
“G always gives a good motivational speech before a Big 5 game,” Duren said about his success in these games. “He talks about how important it is to our alumni and our fans. We try to win the Big 5. The winner of the Big 5 always goes to the tournament.”
La Salle would finish the Big 5 with a 3-1 record, a mark that was marred by just the loss to Villanova this season. St. Joseph’s, on the other hand, fell to 1-3 in the City series.
“We’re disappointed. Down on the mat,” Martelli concluded about his team. “Take tomorrow off and pick ourselves back up on Tuesday.”
For La Salle, the win is vital heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Explorers, who lost on their senior night to George Mason, take a win against an RPI top-50 team into a game against St. Bonaventure, who they beat on February 26th.
“There are teams with 10-12-13 wins that are going to make the NCAA tournament.” Giannini said. “I think we’re slightly better than that. It’s March Madness. This gives us momentum going into it.”
Duren was also enthusiastic about his team’s chances heading into the season’s most important week. As the eighth seed, a La Salle win on Thursday would lead to a matchup on Friday with Saint Louis. The Explorers led the Billikens late in the game this year.
“With the team we have right now, we can beat any of the teams in the A10,” said the Explorers’ floor general. “Winning the A10 tournament, if we play like we did today, we can beat all of those teams.”
Bubble Watch: The loss moves St. Joseph’s from squarely in to just barely inside the bubble. While the loss to La Salle isn’t terrible, it isn’t very helpful either. St. Joseph’s will play the winner of Dayton and George Mason / Fordham, three teams that they beat this season. Should they lose to one of them, they may be sweating it out on Selection Sunday.
“I haven’t thought about, I haven’t talked about it,” Martelli said about his team’s tournament hopes. “A lot of people think that I talk to Joe Lunardi hourly, but I don’t.”
Up Next: Both teams head into the Atlantic 10 tournament next week. La Salle will play at noon on Thursday and again on Friday should they win. Their first game would be against St. Bonaventure.
St. Joseph’s has a first round BYE and then will have to play either Dayton, the five-seed, or George Mason / Fordham, who play on Wednsday.
Philahoops will have coverage.