THIS LA SALLE SEASON, seemingly so promising just a few weeks ago, has now officially skidded off the rails. Whether the train can get back on track will be determined in 2011.
After outplaying Villanova for quite a long time before losing and then losing at home to Bucknell and Rider, last night really did figure to be an easy one at Gola Arena.
Pat Kennedy's Towson team was without its third leading scorer (toe injury). The starting point guard has left school. Another wing player, expected to get major minutes, has not played yet because of injury. Only seven players were listed on the statistical rundown.
Naturally, Towson did whatever it wanted for 20 minutes, leading by a dozen at one point and shooting nearly 60 percent at the break. Just as La Salle finally appeared to have seized control, Towson's Isaiah Philmore made a miracle three just before the regulation buzzer and sent the game into overtime, where La Salle's two starting big men, Jerrell Williams and Aaric Murray, promptly fouled out. And Towson won a game even its coaches probably figured they had no business winning. The final was 93-90.
But it was not nearly as pretty as the score.
Bill Raftery, in town to work tonight's Temple-Villanova game for ESPN, made it to his alma mater to check out the game. Brad Wanamaker, the former Roman Catholic star and a terrific senior on Jamie Dixon's Pittsburgh team, is home for a few days, so he stopped by. Former La Salle coach Lefty Ervin was also in the house.
They did not see a classic. Once upon a long time ago, a really good Kennedy-coached team played a really good La Salle. It was 1989 at the Palestra, and it was La Salle 101, Florida State 100 as Lionel Simmons went basket for basket against Seminoles star George McCloud. This was not like that.
"We're feeling awfully bad right now," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "I thought we fought pretty hard. For some reason, we're more defensively challenged than any team would want to be."
Towson (4-7) scored 43 in each half and seven in OT. That was enough to beat La Salle (6-7).
Williams nearly willed his team home. He did every bit of dirty work and between all that effort, managed to score a career-best 32 points and grab 13 rebounds.
Murray was less effective and probably did not awe the two NBA scouts sitting courtside. At times, he looked a bit uninterested. The same could not be said for Williams. He was into the game from start to finish.
"Never saw this coming," Williams said of the team's current four-game losing streak. "Never thought about it twice. We were playing so well at the beginning. We took a couple tough losses to good teams. We had the momentum and the swagger and everything."
Murray finished with only 11 points and five rebounds in 38 minutes. He almost seemed sick, but Giannini said nothing was wrong with him, while also defending his star player, saying, "We just expect so much of him. I think he was trying . . . We need him to be the best big man on the floor."
La Salle freshman Tyreek Duren (hip injury) came off the bench to score 19 points, including a very late three-point play and what looked like two clinching free throws with 17.5 seconds left in regulation. Then, Philmore (27 points) hit that shot.
Towson got a game-clinching tip from Braxton Dupree (27 points) with 13 seconds left in OT. Earl Pettis' three stayed out at the buzzer, and La Salle was left to wonder how it all has gone so wrong.
La Salle shot 55.7 percent and outrebounded Towson by 10. Still, it lost. Why? Defense or lack of it. Towson shot 54.7 percent for the game.
"It's amazing what we're doing defensively," Giannini said. "I don't want to pile on right now. I have good kids on this team, but, for some reason that really escapes me, we just haven't become a decent - forget about a good - a decent defensive team."
Williams agreed with his coach's assessment.
"Defense," he said. "We've got to guard people."
La Salle senior guard Ruben Guillandeaux did not play. After going home for Christmas, he arrived back on campus yesterday.
"Christmas night, he was doing some pushups and situps," Giannini said. "I guess he got lightheaded. His cousin called an ambulance."
According to Giannini, Guillandeaux went to the hospital, where they did some tests.
"He's fine," Giannini said.
The same, however, cannot be said of La Salle. Something has gone very wrong. *