La Salle tops Penn in Big 5 matchup

SALLE31S
LaSalle's Rohan Brown grabs a rebound from Penn's Sam Jones in the first half.

IF THERE is any time other than March to hit an offensive stride the way La Salle has over its last five games, it's right about now.

With the page about to turn on the year 2014, so too will the page turn on the Explorers' nonconference slate, and the next chapter will be Atlantic 10 play.

And if the last five times out are any indication, La Salle plans on being in the mix in the conference standings throughout the season. After four straight losses to close out November and start off December, the Explorers improved to 4-1 over their last five with a much-needed, 84-67 win over Big 5 rival Penn Tuesday night at Tom Gola Arena.

The level of competition has a bit to do with the recent improvement, and Explorers coach John Giannini knows that.

The four-game losing streak came against the likes of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Villanova and Temple. But, as they say, you can only play who's on your schedule.

So La Salle will head into A-10 play on the heels of a three-game winning streak.

And despite winning by 17 points, Giannini sees plenty of room for improvement. Penn shot 52.0 percent from the floor and forced 17 La Salle turnovers. It was La Salle's 54.1 percent shooting and 19 forced turnovers that allowed the Explorers to win.

"If we give up 50 percent from the field, [but] turn the ball over, we're not going to have a great year in the A-10," Giannini said. "They challenged us. We were just fortunate to have a great offensive night."

That great offensive night was keyed by 48 points in the paint and a 35-21 advantage on the glass.

Jordan Price led the Explorers (8-5) with 18 points. The redshirt-sophomore transfer from Auburn has now scored 103 points over La Salle's last four games (25.8 points). Steve Zack scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting and added nine rebounds and five assists. Jerrell Wright and Amar Stukes added 13 apiece on a combined 12-for-17 from the field, while Cleon Roberts added 12 for the Explorers.

Part of the reason for La Salle's offensive improvement is simply getting time on the floor together. Price, Stukes and Roberts are all in their first seasons at La Salle.

"I think the biggest part of our success is we never played basketball together," Zack said. "Now, that chemistry is really starting to click."

"I just want the open guy to get the ball and for that guy to have the confidence and skill to make a shot," Giannini said. "Outside of trying to get the ball to Jerell by design, we just want to play team basketball and get the open guy the ball and be aggressive and be confident."

Penn (3-7) scored the game's first bucket, but La Salle responded with a three-pointer and never trailed. The Explorers put up a season-high 47 points in the first half and led by 12 at the break.

Each time the Quakers cut into La Salle's lead, the Explorers had an answer. When Penn freshman Mike Auger, playing in his first game since late November because of a foot injury, hit a hook shot to get Penn within 23-21, La Salle responded with a 13-3 run to go up 36-24.

Early in the second half, Penn used a 7-2 run to get back within single digits at 51-42, but the Explorers quickly responded with a 12-2 run to shut the door. That run featured a highlight-reel alley-oop from Price to Wright.

Before Quakers coach Jerome Allen could blink, the game was out of reach.

"They just imposed their will on us," Allen said. "They were tougher, they were more competitive. We're not good enough, not to cover those areas, and still expect to win."

Darien Nelson-Henry led Penn with 15 points and Tony Hicks added 10.