Sunday’s game had ended at Villanova’s Finneran Pavilion. La Salle’s coach had finished his media conference.
Walking back toward his locker room, Ashley Howard took a slight detour, into an area commemorating a different night. Howard looked down at the ground. He had been on this very floor before, but not in this building — it was in Houston, in 2016.
“My first time looking …” Howard said as he checked things out.
He was proud of his team, La Salle’s second-year head coach had just said in that media conference, after Villanova had beaten his Explorers, 83-72. His Explorers had battled, Howard said, but they’d let the game get away from them, “just with costly turnovers and poor transition defense.” He talked about how they knew coming in that so many Villanova players had been shooting well from three-point range.
“Over half of their team shooting above 38% from three, which is pretty impressive,’’ Howard said.
For the game, Villanova had shot just under that, 37.5%. Howard wasn’t fooled. The Wildcats had taken a 20-point halftime lead by making 44% of their threes.
“Our turnovers got those guys easy shots in transition,’’ Howard said.
This was his opening statement. Nothing about the three games La Salle had just won in Florida, or being back at his former place of employment, where Howard had been Jay Wright’s assistant coach.
“We got disheveled for a stretch of the first half that really set us back,’’ Howard said. “But, in typical La Salle fashion, we battled back in the second half. Just fell a little short today.”
What was it like to be in the building for the first time as a head coach?
“It was cool,’’ Howard said. “It was great to just come back. … It was actually my first time, walking in this …”
He meant the new lobby transformed into a Villanova basketball hall of fame, an impressive walk around memory lane.
‘I wish I had come here in the summertime so I could have enjoyed it a little bit more,’’ Howard added, talking about "probably my most exciting time as a competitor,'' his years working under Wright, how it was great to see so many familiar faces.
La Salle had given Villanova a game last season at the Palestra. This would be an interesting barometer for the Explorers, 4-2 coming in after tight wins over Murray State, Wright State, and South Alabama on consecutive nights. Not marquee names, but according to the KenPom.com rankings, La Salle hadn’t been supposed to win any of those games in the Gulf Coast Showcase.
After David Beatty hit a couple of three-pointers, La Salle was up, 14-10, on Villanova. Then came the dishevelment Howard had referred to, and a 14-0 run that essentially was the difference in the game.
Asked what he’d liked, Howard said, “The fact that we don’t quit. I love that. I love the fact that these guys will not quit. ... We have to get comfortable being down, because we’re a young team. We know we’re going to have stretches where we play well. Put in our young guys. I have no idea what they’re going to do sometimes. Sometimes, they play great. Sometimes, they don’t. But we know that whatever happens, we’ll battle back and we’ll give ourselves a chance to get back in the game."
Asked about La Salle’s emphasis on taking Villanova point guard Collin Gillespie out of the game, Howard said, “Uh, the last three games, I think Collin scored Villanova’s first 11 points in each game. So shame on us if we let him do that to us for a fourth straight game.”
What didn’t come up was how one big reason that Gillespie was at Villanova was because a Wright assistant had sat in a gym a few years back and watched an Archbishop Wood point guard pull off some impressive feats, including a drive for a dunk against Abington High School. Howard had advocated to his boss that this guy Gillespie could help them.
Howard is still figuring out what worked at Villanova that could work for him, what isn’t the same for an entirely different group of guys. Different on both sides. All these Villanova sophomores and freshmen -- there was no overlap with Howard on the Main Line. Just guys on a scouting report.
“A kid like Justin Moore is a big-time talent. He just stepped up,’’ Howard said of the emphasis on Gillespie, after Moore had scored 26 points in 31 minutes.
“We try to do a lot of the same things,’’ Howard said. “I’m trying to emulate greatness in a lot of ways. That’s the ultimate sign of respect I can show Coach Wright.”
Wright had made it clear he does not like going up against former assistants.
“I hate today more than anything,’’ Howard agreed. “Just because I love Villanova so much. I don’t want to compete against them. When this day is over, I’m rooting for the Wildcats, any time I’m not rooting for La Salle. It’s a difficult day that way.”
A couple of minutes later, Howard was taking a quick look at a circular sticker placed on the wood: “Arcidiacono gives it up to Jenkins … For the Championship … Bang!’’ There was an image of the soles of two sneakers, to show where Kris Jenkins had taken the pass from Ryan Arcidiacono and hit a shot that night in Houston on that floor, for the first of two NCAA titles with Howard on Villanova’s bench as an assistant.
“Nice,’’ Howard said quietly, almost under his breath.