BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It would have taken a lot, a stunning turnaround really, for La Salle to erase its mediocre regular season and get back to the NCAA Tournament. Four wins in 4 days, likely three as underdogs, provided the only scenario in which the Explorers would get the opportunity to provide a fulfilling encore to last March’s historical, Sweet 16 run.
So it wasn’t exactly a shock when La Salle’s season ended yesterday afternoon at the Barclays Center, a 82-72, first-round Atlantic 10 Tournament loss to St. Bonaventure the final dagger in a disappointing year.
“It was just sad, just to see our season come to an end on a loss,” said senior point guard Tyreek Duren, who finished his La Salle career as one of the top guards in program history. “Like I said after our last game [Sunday’s win at Saint Joseph’s], I had a lot of confidence going into the tournament, that our team could make a good run.”
La Salle, the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament, concluded its season with a 15-16 record. Although predicted in the preseason by the conference’s coaches and the media to finish third in the A-10, the team wasn’t able to replace the energy and production of the graduated Ramon Galloway, a key leader and scorer in the 24-win campaign of 2012-13.
“I just in hindsight didn’t put this team together properly at all,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “But some of the decisions that I made that helped us last year, hurt us this year. Again, that’s in hindsight.
“We needed to replace Ramon and we didn’t,” the coach added. “We thought we did, but we didn’t.”
The Explorers arrived in Brooklyn with confidence stemming from Sunday’s upset of the Hawks but started yesterday’s game slowly, forcing them to play catch-up. The ninth-seeded Bonnies (17-14), who advanced to play top-seeded Saint Louis (26-5) at noon today, played a great game offensively, shooting 53.6 percent from the field and turning the ball over only six times, just once in the first half.
Several times, La Salle got itself back into position to tie the game or take a lead. A Duren layup made it 53-52. A Sam Mills three-pointer made it 61-59. A later Duren layup made it 72-69. But each time, St. Bonaventure pushed back, never surrendering its lead.
Although Matthew Wright, the Bonnies’ leading scorer, was held to just eight points, Youssou Ndoye and Marquise Simmons were efficient in the paint. Ndoye recorded 19 points and 10 rebounds and Simmons, the conference’s leader in field-goal percentage, scored 15 points on 7 of 8 shooting, to go with seven rebounds, six on the offensive glass.
Jerrell Wright, one of two La Salle starters who will return next season, scored a game-high and career-high 26 points on 11 of 13 shooting and brought down nine rebounds. Steve Zack, the other junior in the starting lineup, added 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“I think we just came out sluggish,” said Duren, who scored 15 points, 13 in the second half, in his final collegiate game. “We always talk about how we don’t want to come out in the game slow. We want to come out with the intensity we’re going to need to win the whole game. But we were pretty much fighting back the entire game. We exerted a lot of energy trying to do that.”
Mills added 10 points on a trio of three-pointers but Tyrone Garland, the team’s second-best scorer in the regular season, was held scoreless on seven field-goal attempts, four from long range. He tallied a team-high five assists.
“When they’re good, he scores,” said St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt, whose team snapped a four-game losing streak. “He’s that next guy. Believe me, we didn’t think we were going to shut him out. But since we shut him out, that was a big reason that we won.”
Garland, he of Southwest Philly Floater fame, was a crucial member of last season’s squad. As Giannini pointed out yesterday, the Explorers would not have achieved all they did last year without the John Bartram High grad. But moved into the starting lineup this season, Garland did not yield the expected results, shooting just 33.1 percent from the field with a 22.7 clip from beyond the arc.
“We had a lot of good players, and we needed every single one of them to make the tournament, and we needed every single one of them to win close games and we needed every single one of them to advance in the NCAA Tournament,” Giannini said. “And he’s one of the ones that we couldn’t have been successful without. This year his role was dramatically different and the results were dramatically different. If anything, that’s my fault for not anticipating that. Certainly, he’s the same person and the same player. The fact that I didn’t anticipate that is a disappointment.”
Next season, La Salle is set to return Wright and Zack, the conference’s top regular-season rebounder, but graduates its starting backcourt in Duren, Garland and Mills, who helped make up the program’s winningest senior class in 22 years.
Duren, in particular, will be difficult to replace. The Neumann-Goretti High product leaves La Salle third all-time in steals (227), fourth in assists (500) and 14th in scoring (1,726). The 4-year starter joined Jameer Nelson, Doug Overton and Scottie Reynolds as the only Big 5 guards to record at least 1,500 points, 450 assists and 200 steals in their career.
“It was hard to take him off the court. He was extremely special and indispensable to the teams he played on,” Giannini said. “For the teams he played on, he was our most impactful player.”