The chance was there, a chance to knock one of the few remaining undefeated college basketball teams back into the ranks of the defeated. But it didn't happen.
Though La Salle coach John Giannini will take solace in the fact that his young Explorers came oh-so-close before falling to Mississippi, 84-77, in the San Juan Shootout in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico last night.
"We played a very good basketball game," Giannini said after his team fell to 4-5. "I never like to lose a game and neither does my team. But we went toe-to-toe with an NCAA Tournament team.
"We're disappointed in losing, but we're also extremely excited that we had a chance to beat one of the last unbeaten teams in college basketball."
La Salle opened a 15-9 lead 5 minutes into the game after a three-pointer by Darnell Harris (13 points). Four minutes later, Mississippi forged ahead and took the lead, opening a 13-point advantage at halftime, 42-29.
But the Explorers never lost their intensity, their coach said, and chipped at the lead until finally retaking it, 58-56, on a basket by Ruben Guillandeaux (12 points) with 11 minutes, 13 seconds left.
"Our intensity level and our effort was at a maximum level," Giannini said. "That was the key to us being competitive in this game. If we can continue to do that, we'll have a chance at winning a lot more games."
Tied 60-60 midway through the second half, La Salle connected for just one basket in more than a 4-minute span as Ole Miss opened a 67-62 advantage with 5:55 left.
La Salle pulled within two points less than a minute later, but couldn't overcome the Rebels.
"I'm proud of the way we're playing right now," Giannini said. "And the key to that was us having 11 days of practice before coming to Puerto Rico. We really focused on defense, rebounding and running. And we did a good job in all those areas. We've kind of resigned ourselves that we're not a great executing offensive team. But we'll continue to work very hard on offense."
La Salle will face De Paul (2-7, a 90-74 loser to Clemson) today in their final game of the three-game tournament. Giannini looks forward to the challenge.
"DePaul is a talented team and a tradition-rich program," he said. "If we play with the same intensity level as we did against Mississippi, good things are going to happen for us.
"We're still a work in progress. We're still learning how to win games. We have a ways to go, but we'll continue to grow, and add the pieces that we'll need through recruiting to become a very good team." *