LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. - Every win is a good win. But some can turn out to be better than others.
La Salle picked up a quality victory last night by rolling up I-95 and hanging on to beat feisty Rider, 69-60.
The Explorers (6-2) got 25 points from senior Rodney Green and some clutch plays down the stretch from fellow senior Yves Mekongo Mbala for a win that could hold decent weight come March. The Broncs (6-4) opened their season with a win at defending Southeastern Conference champ Mississippi State, ranked 18th at the time. Now, La Salle can say it has won at Rider.
"I've been building up Rider all week long with the players," coach John Giannini said. "They have a win on the road against a nationally ranked team. They have a win at home against an Atlantic 10 and Big 5 team [Saint Joseph's]."
Rider also came in having won its last nine home games and 26 of the last 30, Giannini pointed out. Freshman Aaric Murray chipped in 12 points, eight rebounds and five blocks and Kimmani Barrett added 11 points for La Salle.
The Explorers led virtually the whole game and were up by as much as 16 in the first half before Rider started chipping away. The Broncs had the deficit down to two with 3 minutes left before Mekongo Mbala and Murray blocked shots on consecutive possessions. La Salle hit seven of eight free throws down the stretch to pull away.
"We earned it," Giannini said. "We earned every bit of that win with the way that Rider challenged us. I liked the way we responded."
Twins Jerrell and Terrell Williams returned to the Explorers' lineup following a one-game suspension for violating team rules. Jerrell started and did not score in 11 minutes. Terrell had five points, all in the first half, in 17 total minutes. Mekongo Mbala shot 0-for-7, but hit eight free throws, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked two shots.
Rider was led by star senior Ryan Thompson (Lenape High in Medford, N.J.), who scored 16 points but shot just 6-for-19. That came on the heels of an 0-for-8 night against Marist on Sunday, when he was held to one point.
"I'm in a little bit of a slump right now," he acknowledged. "Not all of my shots are falling but coach [Tommy Dempsey] keeps telling me to be aggressive. Sometimes I have to force the action if things aren't going for us. I have to push the ball a little more."
Rider's Mike Ringgold (Roman Catholic High) had a pair of layups to cut La Salle's lead to 60-58 and then the Broncs' defense forced an errant pass from Green that landed in the stands.
With the place rocking and a media timeout at hand, Giannini shot up from his place on the bench . . . and applauded. Sometimes the horse responds better to the carrot than the stick.
"I told them, 'We got the lead. We're gonna win this. We're gonna play defense. We're all right.'
"You know, I can be critical, but it doesn't help when things are going [badly]. When you really need to be positive, you need to be positive. And that was the time. The guys really responded."
The venue and atmosphere for La Salle's next game will be quite different than Rider's cozy 1,650 capacity Alumni Gymnasium. On Saturday, the Explorers will take on No. 1 Kansas at the Sprint Center (capacity 18,000-plus) in Kansas City. ESPN will televise the 2 p.m. game.
La Salle has not faced a top-ranked team since losing at DePaul, 92-75, on Feb. 18, 1980.
Green, the senior guard and returning All-Atlantic 10 performer, is looking forward to the challenge.
"It all starts with practice and the way we prepare," he said. "We're all men and we all tie our shoes the same way. We're there to play ball."