Villanova, and especially La Salle, created memorable day at the Palestra
The Explorers came out fast, trying for their first win of the season, but Jay Wright held off his former assistant coach Ashley Howard in the end.
Inside the building, you can’t get away from the nostalgia. Trying to would be a mistake. People often come to the Palestra to meet up with their memories, to walk around the concourse and point to familiar faces on the walls, players famous or not who once graced the court just below.
Even Jay Wright said after the latest memories were created, “It brings me back to childhood, every time I step in this building — then once the game starts, I know crazy things are going to happen.”
Saturday’s game started, and things immediately began twisting into a surprise. Could winless La Salle, missing three players including its top scorer, take out Villanova for a storybook upset? For former Jay Wright top assistant Ashley Howard’s first win as a head coach?
That’s put it up on the concourse stuff. Never happen? You weren’t inside the place as things heated up, or when they stayed hot past halftime, the Explorers unfazed by the defending NCAA champions, even as Villanova kept matching La Salle three-pointer for three-pointer.
For the record, Villanova survived, 85-78. The walls are safe from the need for an addition.
“Memorable, not a classic,’’ a reporter put it before the press conferences.
Real memorable, as La Salle kept dropping shots and new players — and even a brand new player, back from injury — kept stepping up. Early three-pointers were replaced by late successful screen and rolls.
You want an image? Villanova up three, 53.7 seconds left. Villanova guard Collin Gillespie was sprawled on the Palestra floor by half-court. Foul on La Salle? Travel on Gillespie?
Howard had recruited Gillespie to Villanova — the sophomore guard had created massive memories in this building in high school — but when the foul was called on Explorers guard Traci Carter, Howard raced to the end of his bench, looking like he was heading right out of the building.
“I was just thirsty, thirsty for my first win,’’ Howard said later, after giving the standard coach response about the call, that he didn’t see it. “I thought it was an opportunity to get a turnover.”
The ref told Howard that Gillespie had been bumped. He went to the line and dropped his free throws.
À La Salle fan behind the ESPN2 crew saw the replay.
“That was a travel,’’ he yelled at the ref as Gillespie took his foul shots. “That was a [bleeping] travel. CYO ref.”
Wright wasn’t the only one hitting nostalgic notes.
“I’m a history teacher, so the first thing I do is walk the concourse,’’ mentioned La Salle public address announcer Kevin Casey, meaning that he looks at those walls.
La Salle radio analyst Rich Prendergast didn’t have to look at the walls to conjure up memories. His first trip here? The 1953 Catholic League final, his La Salle High losing by a point to West Catholic. He came back for the Catholic vs Public championship, West vs. Wilt Chamberlain’s Overbrook. His school took on Guy Rodgers and Northeast High in the preliminary game between the Catholic and Public runners-up. In the final, West Catholic famously beat Overbrook by surrounding Wilt with four players. He got 29 but his open teammates only managed 13.
“I had a 50-cent student ticket,’’ Prendergast said. “I got stopped about five times on the way over from the train. I was offered 20 bucks. I was 14. I said, ‘I want to see Wilt.’ ‘’
Villanova had the Wilt role, playing Goliath. Pookie Powell was out with back spasms. Howard made the point that his teammates weren’t looking around for Powell. Five finished in double figures, led by Carter’s 17 points. Isiah Deas heated up early. Jack Clark, in his first college game, had a personal memory for the ages. Knee brace on after ACL surgery last winter, the Cheltenham High product dropped in three three-pointers.
Eric Paschall had 27 for Villanova, as the defending national champs quickly found out that showing up wasn’t the same as winning this one.
“At Palestra now,’’ came in a text from Section 206. “50 years ago, Durrett-Porter game.”
That was Ken Durrett’s La Salle vs. Howard Porter’s Villanova. The Big 5 classic of classics. Was the texter there five decades back?
“Yup,’’ the texter texted. “Top five most exciting events ever been to — intense.”
They showed highlights from that one at halftime on the big screen in the east end zone. The best thing about Saturday though? Nobody had to rely on their memories to know they’d seen some interesting ball. Not a classic, but memorable.