From bubble to big time, La Salle stuns K-State in tourney
KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- A week ago, La Salle's players sat in a locker room in Barclays Center in disbelief after a first-round exit from the Atlantic 10 Championship at the hands of Butler.
The loss couldn't have come at more importune time for a team on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, a program that had last appeared in the event in 1992. Even worse, it came after a blowout loss at Saint Louis, another lock for the NCAA tournament.
And the defeat also happened to be the first time all season that La Salle had lost back-to-back games. But when ninth-year Explorers coach Dr. John Giannini addressed his team, his message was simple.
"You can't lose three games in a row," Giannini told his team, "or we're out."
Giannini was talking about the NCAA tournament. He was confident that the combination of beating Atlantic 10 powers Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in back-to-back games in January and the overall strength of the league would get his team an at-large bid.
"That really made us come together," junior guard Tyrone Garland said. "Nobody thinks we could win."
But fourth-seeded Kansas State now knows after No. 13 La Salle raced to a 19-point first-half lead, came from behind with less than three minutes left and forced a last-second miss to stun the Wildcats 63-61 on Friday afternoon in the second round of the West region. The Explorers did so behind a combined 40 points from forward Jerrell Wright and guard Ramon Galloway, a South Carolina transfer.
The Explorers have now won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1955 after beating Boise State in a first Four Game on Wednesday.
"The A-10 is a good league," sophomore guard D.J. Peterson said. "I don't know why people would question us."
Not many folks are questioning the A-10 these days. With La Salle and Temple winning Friday, the league is now a combined 6-0 in this NCAA tournament.
"I hope our guys understood how good they were," said an emotional Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. "Just look at the record of the A-10. We tried to emphasize that to them."
And as soon as the Explorers finished celebrating Friday's win by dancing and popping the front of their jerseys on the court towards the Kansas State-dominated crowd, they first and foremost acknowledged that the A-10 had prepared them for these moments. They pointed to tough road games in front of crazed crowds at VCU, Temple and St. Louis.
"Our conference got us ready for situations like this," Garland said. "Coming in here knowing we was against the odds, we were ready for it."
Giannini recalled how he tried to comfort his team entering the NCAA tournament on the heels of the regular-season finale loss to Saint Louis and defeat to Butler in the A-10 Championship's first round.
"You're far better prepared for this tournament than you realize," Giannini told his team. "You just lost to two potential Final Four teams. You're not to play against anyone in this tournament that's tougher than St. Louis or Butler."
The La Salle players knew their coach was right. But they preferred to take solace in the wins, not the losses.
Their confidence stemmed from beating VCU -- the Rams' lone home conference loss -- and Butler, which had snapped its then 13-game winning streak.
"It just showed we could play with anybody in the country," Garland said.
In the locker room after the game, La Salle's players were nonchalant. There were no prolonged celebrations.
The most emotion might have still been about Wednesday's news that Butler is leaving the A-10 for the new Big East.
"I'm mad they're breaking it up," Garland said.
But former La Salle star Lionel Simmons, who led the Explorers to the NCAA tournament from 1988-90, was savoring the moment.
"I'm just very, very proud," said a grinning Simmons. "We're back. There's no question we're back. It's an exciting time for us."
La Salle now has different goal. It had been written in blue marker on a whiteboard after Friday's win.
It read, "BEAT MISSISSIPPI" and was circled with "SWEET 16" written underneath.
The Explorers are now focused on another streak: Winning three in a row.