A couple of days before he was to compete against the team he helped lead to two national championships, La Salle coach Ashley Howard said he hoped the game at the Palestra would be “a typical Big 5 rivalry game where anything is to be expected,” where the records “get thrown out the window.”
Despite the fact they were missing two starters, the winless Explorers did a good job Saturday of fulfilling that prediction for 40 minutes against 23rd-ranked Villanova, but the Wildcats rode senior leaders Eric Paschall and Phil Booth in the second half for an 85-78 victory before a crowd of 6,522.
Paschall scored 17 of his 27 points in the final 20 minutes and Booth added 19 for the game, enough for the Cats (6-2) to subdue the feisty Explorers (0-8) and win their 23rd consecutive City Series game.
Villanova trailed for all but 31 seconds of the game’s first 27 minutes – with the largest deficit being 12 points late in the first half. Even when it grabbed the lead for good, the largest margin was seven.
Howard, who spent the previous five seasons on Jay Wright’s staff at ’Nova, was minus two injured starters – guard Pookie Powell (back), the team’s top scorer with an 18.3-point average, and forward Jared Kimbrough (foot), its leading rebounder. The Explorers were also missing reserve guard Cheddi Mosely (concussion).
Yet, they never stopped battling.
"We’ve had stretches in every game this year where we’ve played great, and we’ve had stretches where we lose focus and we don’t stay together,” Howard said. “But I thought we (competed) tonight for 40 minutes. We played a team that was better today and I can look our guys in the face and say they gave an honest effort.”
The difference was that Villanova had Paschall and Booth. Paschall had 11 of the Wildcats’ first 19 points in the second half, including a conventional three-point play that put them up 58-54 with 12 minutes, 2 seconds left to play.
Booth later added a highlight-reel dunk that turned into a three-point play that put the Cats up 76-72 with 4:23 remaining. He also helped slow down Isiah Deas, La Salle’s No. 2 scorer who knocked down four three-point baskets in the first half but had just three points in the second.
Traci Carter led the Explorers with 17 points and eight assists, and Deas added 15 points. La Salle shot 58 percent for the game, and Villanova connected on 55 percent of its field-goal attempts.
“Just really great leadership by Booth and Paschall,” Wright said, “not just offensively but understanding that Deas was getting it going and we had to adjust. Traci Carter was hitting threes and we had to get out on him which we weren’t doing earlier in the game. So when we make those adjustments, those guys make sure the other new guys on the court knew.”
Collin Gillespie stepped up down the stretch, scoring eight of his 15 points in the last 6:12, including 6-for-6 from the line. He made four in a row in the final minute after Miles Brookins brought La Salle to within three at 79-76, and Paschall added a pair.
After the buzzer, Wright and Howard embraced at mid-court. Howard said Wright told him, “I’m proud of you. Your guys really competed.”
Having been at Villanova, however, Howard knew Paschall and Booth would be front and center for their team.