Quietly in Olney, a bit north of the city's basketball heart, La Salle is undergoing a basketball facelift. A program that hasn't danced in March in two decades and had become almost forgotten in the city is clawing back.
Wednesday's upset of Xavier, a preseason top-25 team, was slightly stunning. Sunday afternoon's 82-75 win over visiting Massachusetts at Tom Gola Arena showcased the Explorers as a young team that can face adversity and knows how to win.
The Explorers sat comfortably on a 26-point halftime lead, one point more than UMass had scored in the first 20 minutes.
But La Salle (12-4, 2-0 Atlantic Ten) slowly loosened its grip and allowed the visitors to inch close. Midway through the half, UMass (12-4, 1-1) rattled off an 11-0 run to cut the deficit to 57-46. Explorers head coach John Giannini opted not to call a timeout; instead, he left the game in his players' hands.
And it paid off. The players, led by Earl Pettis' game-high 19 points, righted the ship and held on.
"Give our guys credit," Giannini said. "We survived having a big lead, we survived giving them some momentum, and we had to play against a really good zone."
Giannini said the Minutemen's zone defense gave the Explorers problems in the second half, after they had already beaten UMass' man-to-man and full-court defenses. La Salle scored just 31 points against the zone, and Ramon Galloway was limited to four, after scoring 14 points in the first half.
"Once we figured out our shots weren't falling in the zone, we knew that we would win the game if we stopped them from scoring," Galloway said.
Pettis, a senior guard, said he told his teammates at halftime to be ready for a UMass rally. The Minutemen entered the game winners of six straight, and Pettis believed the team was too good to simply fold.
"I told them in the locker room that you can't celebrate because it's only one half," Pettis said. ". . . I told them to stay focused. And keep making stops, and we should be fine."
The Explorers played nearly half the game without freshman center Jerrell Wright. The Dobbins product had to sit twice due to a right eye injury and later found himself back on the bench after he was whistled for a technical with 9 minutes, 46 seconds remaining that appeared to irate his head coach.
"I wasn't jumping for joy over it," Giannini said. "I don't think there is any living coach that likes technical fouls. . . . I think players make mistakes, and he just made a slip of the tongue, that's all."
Despite his stint on the bench, Wright tied his career high with 12 rebounds in just 22 minutes and had a key dunk in the second half.
Before the Explorers dive back into conference play, they'll take on Penn at the city's basketball heart, the Palestra, on Tuesday night.
"We're 0-1 in the Big Five, and we emphasize the Big Five tremendously," Giannini said. ". . . We need a Big Five win desperately, and it's going to be pretty tough."