IT DID NOT look promising for La Salle when American, playing the style its coach Mike Brennan learned at Princeton from Pete Carril 20 years ago, got a backdoor layup 21 seconds into the game at Gola Arena. It looked even worse when La Salle had nine turnovers on its first 18 possessions against the team that plays the second-slowest pace in the country. It actually looked kind of hopeless with 14 1/2 minutes left with the Explorers trailing by 20, with the game down to what turned out to be 22 possessions remaining in regulation.
And it looked mathematically impossible, when, with 4.4 seconds left , AU's Pee Wee Gardner stood at the foul line needing to make one more shot to give his team a four-point lead. They had just made seven straight free throws in 28 seconds. This one missed.
Jordan Price pushed the ball ahead and, jumping off one foot from the Explorer at midcourt, calmly tossed a shot at the rim that absolutely looked like a shot. It swished. You make a ridiculous comeback like that to get into overtime, you just have to win.
It turns out nothing "has" to happen. American, the defending Patriot League champions who used just six players and had three starters play 45 minutes and one play 44, did not panic and never trailed in the OT, finally winning 68-66.
"Any coach will say that there's times when their team plays poorly," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "And, sometimes, it has to do with the opponent and sometimes you just don't have your best day. Today was the first time that we played poorly because we weren't ready to play. I know why."
The coach chose not to share the why. Big man Jerrell Wright agreed with the what.
"We just came out flat, I think," he said. "They came out and they hit us right in our mouth. If we had come out with a defensive edge, I think it would have been a different game."
It really was a miracle that they even had a chance for a miracle. As it turned out, even that miracle was not enough.
The scores of each half were identical - 36-23. American (6-4) won the first; La Salle (5-5) took the second.
But it is very hard to overcome a half when your opponent has the same number of assists (12) as you have turnovers. The second half started worse than the first half ended, La Salle trailing 43-23 with those 14 1/2 minutes left.
Giannini went big with Price and Cleon Roberts at guard, Wright, Steve Zack and Rohan Brown up front.
"I know you could count on Rohan Brown to play hard," Giannini said. "We went big and we switched everything . . . It worked and it gave us a chance to win."
American, so cool for so long, began to unravel with live ball turnovers, bad shots, contested shots and shot-clock violations. La Salle started to attack, especially Price (game-high 26 points to go along with six rebounds, five assists and three steals), Wright (14 points, nine rebounds) and Zack (12 points, 11 rebounds)
La Salle made up 13 points in just eight possessions. They had five shots to get within five points but missed them all, including a breakaway dunk by Zack that stayed out. They had a chance to get it to four with 2 1/2 minutes left, but Roberts' three stayed out.
Then, American started making free throws. Time and arithmetic said it was just about over. Then, miraculously, it wasn't.
"In my younger days I have," Price said when asked if he'd made a shot like that before. "I practice it every day in practice. I was pretty confident shooting it."
Then, it really was over. The reality was the final score.
"I think we will learn from that because we have spectacular kids on this team," Giannini said. "Not good kids, great kids. I love 'em to death."
A lesser team would have caved after the Price halfcourt shot.
"Felt great for how hard we played to get back into it," Giannini said. "That's why [American] deserves all the credit. They're going to have a terrific year and that's why we scheduled them."
D.J. Peterson, who injured an ankle in Saturday's win at Drexel, did not play. The Explorers did not, or could not, defend for nearly 26 minutes. And they finished with 23 turnovers.
"D.J. does so many little things like not turn the ball over and play defense," Giannini said. "People look at the stat sheet and they say, why does he play? He doesn't score. They see a lot of zeros on the stat sheet. One of those zeros is turnovers."
It actually looked like Price was going to get another chance to tie the game with 20 seconds left in OT. But American ran its whole team at him and he lost the ball. Then, he was hunched over at halfcourt, just a few feet from where he launched his buzzer-beater not 10 minutes in real time before. This time he could only watch as the clinching free throws went in the other basket. A second long bomb buzzer-beater, this time by Johnnie Shuler, only set the final score.