La Salle learned Thursday night that no team perfects defense in its first two games of the season.
The Explorers, who had limited their first two opponents to 32.5 percent shooting, were given a scare by South Alabama on Thursday night. They saw a second-half lead dwindle from 23 points to 5 before they finally secured an 81-73 victory at Tom Gola Arena to improve to 3-0.
Switching to a smaller lineup in the second half, the visiting Jaguars (1-2) used three-point shots and drives to the basket to make it a game. They shot 51.7 percent in the final 20 minutes and knocked down nine three-point baskets.
"Some people play zone and man [defense], we play our man two different ways," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "We had some players that, when we tried to change, didn't execute at all, and we gave up wide-open layups at crunch time, which is obviously unacceptable."
South Alabama went to the basket twice to make it a five-point game in the closing minutes, including a follow-up basket by Rodrick Sikes with 1 minute, 21 seconds to play that made it 78-73. But Amar Stukes knocked down a three-pointer from the right corner with 52 seconds remaining for the game's final points.
B.J. Johnson scored 30 points, 22 in the first half, and pulled down 11 rebounds to lead the Explorers.
La Salle's two big men, 6-10 Tony Washington and 6-10 Miles Brookins, played just 15 combined minutes. Giannini said he's more comfortable playing with a big in the game, but that didn't fit on this night.
"I don't think it would be wise to have a 6-10 guy chasing one of those 6-6 shooters around the court," he said. "Our guards struggled with, it much less a 6-10 guy. I think if we would have played big, we would have lost. They made nine threes with us playing our quickest lineup."
The Explorers, who led 47-27 at halftime, got it to 23 on Pookie Powell's three-point basket on their initial second-half possession. Powell sank another three with 10:23 to play to make it 65-44.
But the Jaguars started hitting, scoring 14 unanswered points in a three-minute stretch, and Johnson stopped getting the ball. He had only 2 points and two shots in the opening 12 ½ minutes of the half.
"I guess they tried to deny me the ball," Johnson said. "We did a good job of not turning the ball over. We're taught nothing forced if the defense is taking something away. So we try to find other ways to score."
Johnson had back-to-back baskets in the final three minutes to help La Salle keep a cushion, and that turned out to be enough.
"I'm glad we were challenged, and we withstood a run, and we had to finish the game out under some pressure," Giannini said. "That's invaluable experience early in the year."