NO MATTER the sport, no matter the level of play, coaches will say it until they are blue in the face: It all starts with defense.
That was certainly the case for the La Salle Explorers last night in a 68-51 win over visiting Northeastern.
The Huskies, who were coming off an impressive win over Big East member St. John's, was limited to only 16 field goals and 32 percent shooting.
As good as the overall defense was, one particular play seemed to boost La Salle from a sluggish start to a blitzing win that improved it to 4-3.
With the Explorers trailing, 12-7, in a game that, to that point, could have been a cure for insomnia, a turnover led to what appeared to be an easy breakaway layup by Northeastern's Jonathan Lee. While Lee seemed to slow down to get his steps down for what might have been a layup or slam, guard Ramon Galloway put his head down and sprinted. He caught Lee at the basket and blocked a sure two points. Not coincidentally, La Salle then went on a 17-6 jog - run would be too strong a word, judging by the ineptness of both offenses - to finish the half ahead, 24-18.
"I think every play is important, but I love plays of extraordinary effort," La Salle coach John Giannini said after notching his 399th career win. "That was a play of extraordinary effort. I love him as a person and as a player. He is a good offensive player, though he still has to get comfortable. But I love his talent, and I love his aggressiveness."
Besides the uplifting defensive play, Galloway was one of four Explorers who finished scoring in double figures, with 14 points, joining Earl Pettis (15), Tyreek Duren (13 and five assists) and freshman Jerrell Wright (11, five rebounds, three blocks).
" 'Coach G' always tells us that it's defense first, that defense wins games and that good defense leads to offense," said Galloway, a transfer from South Carolina who attended Freire Charter for his first 2 years of high school. "Rebounding, blocking shots, getting loose balls, anything that we can do extra on defense we try to do to help us win games. He stays on us about defense."
The Explorers employ a hounding defense. There is very little zone (last night there was none), with an abundance of communication to identify switches and hedging and recovering. If you don't really like playing defense, it's really not the scheme for you.
"Clearly, a high percentage of outstanding teams play man," Giannini said. "We don't have great length to be a zone team. We want to keep it simple.
"Really, there's not much not to like about these guys. They want to be good. They like each other. They are zero maintenance."
Maybe not much maintenance as far as discipline, but they certainly are high on the fix-it chart when it comes to injuries.
Pettis was playing with a bandaged middle finger on his left (non-shooting) hand after he dislocated the finger in Saturday's win over Rider. Wright was just cleared to play after a hip flexor problem kept him out of practice, and reserve Steve Zack was sporting stitches over his left eye after getting hit in practice Tuesday. It is part of the reason, Giannini said, that the offense was so stale early in the game, when La Salle shot only 36 percent from the floor in the first half.
"We're not doing too much five-on-five in practice, not as much as I would like," Giannini said. "We're trying to be careful to avoid any more injuries. [Tuesday], we did a little bit of it and a few minutes later, Steve is on his way to the hospital to get stitches. We have to adjust during games, and tonight we were not in a flow offensively early on, but then we settled in."
Basically, La Salle played off its defense. During a 24-6 run (yes, this one was a run) in the second half that blew the game open, the Explorers forced six turnovers and blocked two shots.
"In the summertime, coach told us that we were going to be a man-to-man team," said Wright, who had one of his most active games of the season. "I had to make an adjustment because I had never played man-to-man before in my life. It was an adjustment learning how to get over picks, switch, hedge, all those things. But the more we work on it, the more comfortable I feel with it. Now, I love playing defense."
Truly a coach's dream quote. And if there was one defensive stand that Giannini could point to for the rest of the season, it was Galloway's block.
"What a great, great play that was," the coach said. "No doubt, it was the play of the game."
And a defensive one, at that.