Ashley Howard knew pretty much the same time as everyone else inside Tom Gola Arena — his Explorers had found trouble.
Actually, La Salle’s coach knew earlier. The scoreboard had 20th-ranked Dayton up by just a basket Thursday night when Howard called out to his top scorer, “Yo, you gonna make plays?”
Immediately down at the other end, Isiah Deas did as instructed. He tried to make something happen, until a referee’s whistle interrupted. He’d carried the ball as he tried to start a spin move. His next try got blocked.
Against the Flyers, the Explorers found no way to create something out of nothing. Even paths to the basket led toward trouble, La Salle players surrounded.
It all got real ugly, immediately, Dayton numbers running up on that scoreboard like it was some kind of telethon. That 14-12 deficit blew out to 30-14, moving on to 46-22. TKO, long before halftime.
In the Philadelphia tradition, La Salle’s head basketball coach does not try to spread sugar over a dish that was a mess out of the oven. Howard will give it to you straight. Asked about Dayton’s maybe taking advantage of La Salle’s defensive aggressiveness, an early-season hallmark, Howard was not having it.
“I didn’t feel like we played any defense,’’ Howard said after the 84-58 defeat. “I felt like our defense was nonexistent. I thought our communication was bad. I thought we had way too many situations, especially early in the game, where we weren’t matched up. … They came down and moved the ball and found the open man.”
Back on their heels, the Explorers stayed there.
“They play with great pace,’’ Howard said. “Until you see it live, it’s hard to get a feel for it. It’s hard to simulate. I feel like we had some scoring issues early in the game that really just affected our fight. I just felt like midway through the first half, we just lost our fight, once we couldn’t generate easy offense.”
La Salle had built a 9-3 record a number of ways. The Explorers had won a bunch of 50-50 games, or even games where they were slight underdogs. They’d also scheduled some recent games they were supposed to win, and did decisively. Their losses had all come within the Big 5, to Villanova, Penn, and Temple. None of those games had looked like this.
Dayton looks very much like the best of the Atlantic 10. Flyers coach Anthony Grant had been instrumental in getting VCU to the heights of the Colonial Athletic Association before he went on to Alabama. Now, he’s got Dayton rolling, led by 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore Obi Toppin. You ask an NBA scout who had seen Tobbin live: Lottery pick? “Yup’’ comes the simple text response.
It wasn’t just Toppin who took out La Salle. The Flyers put five players in double figures, racking up 22 assists. Dayton had not won in Philadelphia since 2011. Grant had crunched those numbers, too, said he’d told his team about it. No wins at La Salle, no wins at St. Joseph’s.
Over the years, Dayton has a reputation as a great home team and iffy road group. This season, the Flyers have taken Kansas and Colorado to overtime on neutral courts for their only losses. This was their first true road game.
“I’m just really confused,’’ Howard said later. “I felt like we really prepared ourselves to play a good game. Then we got into the game and it was a scenario … we were stuck on 14 for a while. Then we just lost it. We just let it slip because we weren’t scoring. Our attention to detail and our energy on the defensive end just fell apart.”
The Explorers don’t have a Toppin (20 points, 7-for-9 shooting, 7 rebounds, 4 assists). They don’t have a version of Toppin, a guy to bail them out. Everybody who gets in the game for La Salle has proven to be an A-10 player. They’re all legit. There just isn’t that go-to player. (No sharpshooter, either. The Explorers had no three-pointers in the first 25 minutes.)
“Even if you’re in a tight game, you know who you’re going to,’’ Howard said. “That’s what Dayton does. He’ll put the pressure on the defense. He’ll usually make the right play.”
Was this a measuring stick? Every game is that, Howard answered.
“We’re still in the early stages of building this program,’’ Howard said. “The one thing that I would have liked to have seen tonight is just more fight and more competitive spirit. I felt like in the Villanova game we got down and we came back and we battled in the second half.”
Temple game, he said, same thing.
“We didn’t have that same fight tonight,’’ Howard said. ‘It’s definitely unacceptable.”
Howard talked about a reality check after winning the games they were supposed to win. He was worried about getting overconfident — “a false sense of where we are. Today put us right back.”
Asked a natural follow-up, if his team had seemed overconfident in practice, Howard said, no, the opposite. Two great days of practice.
“If you’re a player and you’re prepared and you go into the game and you’re like, ‘Man, these guys are faster and they’re moving the ball,’ it shocks you a little bit,’’ Howard said. “I felt like that’s what happened to us today.”
When La Salle started the Howard era 0-10 last season, the Explorers dug out of that hole with an 8-10 A-10 season. If that set the bar for this A-10 season a little higher, La Salle earned that.