During the holiday season, the time of year when presents are neatly wrapped and finished off with pretty bows, and cheer is in abundance, there is a lot less ugliness around.
If you needed an ugly quota, Tom Gola Arena was the place to be last night, especially for the first half of basketball. Fortunately for La Salle, its play was a little less unattractive than visiting Mount St. Mary's. That was good enough for the Explorers to pull out a 65-59 win and improve to 6-5.
"That was a tale of two halves," said La Salle coach John Giannini. "They are a veteran team who's played a difficult schedule. They've played some good teams in difficult places. In the first half, I truly don't think we could have played worse."
La Salle was able to overcome a first half in which it didn't hit a field goal from outside of the lane, shot just 11-for-38 (28.9 percent) and trailed 32-26. Ironically, the Mount connected on just two field goals from outside the paint, both of them three-pointers, which equaled the lead at the break.
The primary reason the Explorers weren't behind by more was their relentless effort on the boards, particularly at the offensive end, where they grabbed 14 rebounds.
Ruben Guillandeaux hit the first outside shot for La Salle, a trey on the team's first possession of the second half. But the Mount (3-8), which lost its sixth straight game, was able to grab its biggest lead of the game a short time later when it scored six straight to take a 46-37 lead with 15 minutes, 36 seconds remaining.
That's when Giannini switched from his primary defense - man-to-man - to a packed-in, 2-3 zone. It worked to perfection as the Mount was able to hit just four field goals the rest of the game. La Salle finished the night scoring 28 of the last 41 points.
Besides the intimidating defense of 6-9 Vernon Goodridge (10 points, two blocks), La Salle was aided by a balanced offense. An 18-footer by Kimmani Barrett (15 points) as the shot clock sounded tied the game at 53-53 with 6:55 left. Then Rodney Green (team-high 17) took over, hitting a trey from the left wing, a driving layup (during which he was falling down as he shot) and another layup to give La Salle a 60-53 lead with 3:53 left.
From there, it was just a matter of hitting some fouls shots and limiting turnovers.
Barrett, who scored in double figures for the eighth straight game, has become a consistency the Explorers need.
"Since the first day of training camp he's been our most consistent player," said Green, who shot 8-for-13 from the floor and collected six rebounds and assists.
Barrett downplayed his teammates compliment.
"I'm just being more aggressive, that's about it," he said. "I look to score and get my team involved. I look for everyone, whoever has a mismatch in the post and try to go to them."
Which was a common theme last night against smaller Mount St. Mary's.
"Their size was a huge concern," said Mount coach Milan Brown. "I told our team we had to gang rebound. They are real good on the offensive glass. Sometimes we did that and they still got the ball. Sometimes the size of the athlete matters."
La Salle boasts big, long athletes across the board, that's no secret. That they went to a zone trailing in the second half was kind of surprising. But the coach's reasoning was due to his team's size.
"Listen, with our length we should be a very good zone team," Giannini said. "We were struggling in our man-to-man. We're going to have to go to zone at times."
It proved to be the right decision. And it helped the Explorers play better all around in the second half as they shot a blistering 14-for-24 (58.3 percent), limited the Mount to 38 percent and outrebounded them 21-13.
Combine those numbers and it makes for a nice, neat ending to what started out as anything but.
"The second half was a very nice turnaround," Giannini said. "The zone helped us tremendously. Vernon had the impact we expected him to have to win a game, he was effective in the middle of the zone."
And now the Explorers have 7 days with no games before hosting Manhattan on New Year's Eve. It will be time spent tidying up some of the sloppiness that seems to plague this team for long stretches almost every game.
"You don't ever want to make drastic changes," Giannini said. "We'll continue to get better. The time off allows you to tinker with things offensively. Hate to sound like a coaching cliché, but we could put some people in better positions." *