KANSAS CITY -- “Everybody’s blowing me up,” Lionel Simmons was saying, standing in a hallway outside of the La Salle locker room on Friday evening. The Explorers had just won their second NCAA Tournament game and Simmons motioned to his phone and started reeling off the names: Bobby Johnson, Jack Hurd, Craig Conlin, Bron Holland, more. He said a bunch of them were getting together in Philadelphia to celebrate. He sounded a little bit wistful that he was missing it, but just a little.
The L-Train -- who, along with Tom Gola, is the definition of La Salle basketball royalty -- made the first stop in Dayton and the next stop here. He is in the stands, badgering the officials. He is in the locker room, interacting with the current players, the living, breathing example of what La Salle can be. After 21 years away from the tournament, it is a time that he can appreciate more than most.
“I’m very proud,” Simmons said. “It’s been a complete turnaround. John (Giannini) has done a great job with the program. The players believe in each other, care for each other. It’s just a great feeling right now for us...
“Everybody likes a winner and now these guys are rolling. We’ve been through some tough times but now it’s turned. I’m just really proud of them. They played hard and deserve the credit.”
The 63-61 win over Kansas State was minutes old as Simmons stood there and talked. He was beaming. It had been such a ridiculous game -- the 18-point halftime lead for the Explorers, and then the huge push back by Kansas State to re-take the lead, and then the gutty, physical final minutes. It was the kind of ending -- all about gumption -- that would make anyone proud.
“They just showed a lot of resilience, I thought,” Simmons said. “I thought (Kansas State) would make a run, but I didn’t think they would come all the way back to take the lead. But these guys held in there. I thought Jerrell (Wright) made big, big free throws and got key rebounds. I thought Tyreek (Duren) and Ramon (Galloway) did a good job of still controlling the game and trying to defend those guys as best they could.
“They just hung in there. They’re resilient. They deserved to win.”
Simmons sings the praises of Giannini willingly. He loves the Explorers’ guard-centric style of play, and the overall intensity. “I just think (Giannini has) done an outstanding job of turning the program around...
“I’ve always believed in cycles. Teams are good for a while and then they have their down time. Our down time was a little longer than we’d like but I think it’s our time now. It’s been long enough.”