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In beating Mississippi, La Salle goes from great to fantastic

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - They had gathered just a week before, not even knowing whether the NCAA tournament would offer them a chance to play. Seven days later, the La Salle Explorers were not only a tournament team but one of the last 16 standing in the nation.

La Salle fans showing their pride. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
La Salle fans showing their pride. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - They had gathered just a week before, not even knowing whether the NCAA tournament would offer them a chance to play. Seven days later, the La Salle Explorers were not only a tournament team but one of the last 16 standing in the nation.

Along the way, good became great, great became fantastic, and Sunday night, when Tyrone Garland's driving layup with less than three seconds to play lifted the Explorers past Mississippi, 76-74, fantastic drifted into the realm of the incredible.

La Salle had to fight back to win the game and had to fight through the tall trees of the Mississippi frontcourt all night long. Down by five points with a little more than four minutes to play, they got a three-pointer from Tyreek Duren, who was fouled on the shot. He missed the free throw, but the rebound went to Jerrell Wright, whose layup tied the game.

It was a grind to the finish after that, and La Salle got its opportunity with the game tied after Ole Miss couldn't reach the rim with a pair of shots and was whistled for a shot-clock violation on its last full possession. That set the stage for Garland, who had a good look from the outside but took the ball to the rim and dropped in what he called a "Southwest Philly floater."

The Explorers are floating to Los Angeles now for a West Regional matchup with Wichita State. The team is heading directly there, and will get a couple of solid days of practice, and a little rest, before seeing what incredible can become.

Three wins in five days is what it took to stay alive, and to remain alive as the last Philadelphia team in the tournament. This is the Explorers' longest tournament run since 1955, so they might as well make it last.

Regardless of outcomes, it has been a successful year for La Salle, Temple, and Villanova - each of which looked like long shots to be included in the tournament at some point of the season - although the quick endings for Temple and Villanova, especially Temple, will require some time to gain that perspective.

Villanova has always been pointing toward next season, and making the tournament was a bonus. The Wildcats made a nice second-half run at North Carolina on Friday night, but paid the price for a sluggish defense that put them in a 20-point hole in the first half. Coach Jay Wright was quick to embrace the "experience," which he can since his team is coming back virtually intact next season.

Temple suffered the biggest heartbreak, particularly because the Owls let an enormous win against top-seeded Indiana slip away in the final minutes Sunday. Wins over North Carolina State and Indiana and a trip to the Sweet 16 would have made a good memory to hold as the Owls move into the uncertainty that is the as-yet-unnamed remnants of the Big East.

And they will move into it without the five seniors who averaged 27 minutes of playing time and scored 73 percent of the team's points this season. It could be a while before the Owls get this chance again.

As for La Salle, which had been so long in the wilderness until regaining its stride with a 20-win season last year and a trip to the NIT - its first tournament appearance of any kind since 1992 - the future is much brighter, and not just because the past was so bleak. Winning three NCAA games this year, surpassing its win total in the tournament for the last five decades, marks the official reemergence of the program.

With the exception of leading scorer Ramon Galloway, not a small exception, the Explorers will have everyone back next season. It remains to be seen whether coach John Giannini is among the returnees. The last two seasons have raised his national profile and made him an attractive candidate for coaching openings, and Sunday night's win might have put a bow on that resumé.

The game didn't have to turn out that way, as both teams really had their chances.

The Explorers could have taken a little control at the end of the first half. Their seven-point lead with two minutes remaining was cut to just two, 40-38, when Ole Miss gunner extraordinaire Marshall Henderson made his third three-pointer of the half.

La Salle, working with a size disadvantage and having trouble limiting good shots by the Rebels, was in the game only because of five high-arcing three-pointers from Galloway, who played all 20 minutes of the half and scored 19 points by the break.

It went back and forth after that, until Garland floated one in all the way from the playground. That was quite an end to a week that began with uncertainty and ended with the biggest La Salle basketball celebration in five decades.

And now another week begins.