ATLANTIC CITY – When a team is winless after 10 games, it doesn’t matter that the opposition is in the same predicament.
For La Salle and first-year coach Ashley Howard, beating Alabama A&M, 80-57, in the Boardwalk Battle on Friday wasn’t like upsetting Kansas, Duke or Villanova, but at the moment when the final buzzer sounded and a "1″ finally went into the win column, it probably felt like it.
La Salle can exhale. Howard no longer has to answer the exhaustive question about when he was going to get his first victory as a head coach.
Junior guard Saul Phiri played for the first time this season and scored 13 points. Isiah Deas paced the Explorer with 19.
La Salle also benefited from the return of leading scorer Pookie Powell, who had missed the last three games with a back injury. Powell finished with 16 points while making six of eight shots.
The Explorers will play Towson in the championship game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers (4-7) beat Tulane (4-7) on Friday, 73-55.
There are no misconceptions about where La Salle is. It’s late December and the Explorers have just one win. Still, there cannot be any sort of turnaround without getting that first win.
“Honestly, for us this season is not about wins and losses,” Howard said. “For me, I’m in a position where I have to keep a consistent message.
“Yes, it’s my first win as a head coach, but I’m more happy that our guys got to experience this together. Hopefully, it is something we can build on.”
Without a doubt, Alabama A&M was the perfect opponent at the right time for the Explorers, who were coming back after a 12-day layoff.
The Bulldogs (0-11) finished 3-28 last season, with all three wins coming in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
AAMU has not beaten a team outside of the SWAC since Jacksonville State in November 2015. It had just one lead against La Salle, 12-10.
This game started out the way that was expected for to struggling teams desperate for their first taste of victory. Both played hard and both played sloppy.
The score was 12-12 with 12 minutes left in the first half when La Salle did something it has rarely done: put together a stretch of consistent basketball without the miscues that have plagued it all season.
David Beatty sank a three-pointer that started the Explorers on a 28-12 run to end the first half with a 40-24 lead.
“Even in the second half, we had our stretches when we turned the ball over,” Howard said, “but we gathered ourselves back together and regrouped.
“I think the break definitely helped. … We’ve got everyone back, and now we’ve got an opportunity to really look at what our rotation will be like moving forward.”