In the four losses leading up to his team's regular-season finale Saturday against Dayton, La Salle coach John Giannini figured he knew what the missing element was.
"We've been playing tough but not as tough as some of the people we lost to," Gianni said. "We've got to find the 'er.' We've been tough but we needed to be tougher. We needed to make those extra plays, we needed to consistently defend. Today we were able to do that against a really good team and beat them."
La Salle (16-15, 8-10 A-10) used a strong stretch in the fourth quarter to upend Dayton (23-7, 13-5), 55-53, at Tom Gola Arena. With the victory, La Salle secured the ninth seed in the Atlantic Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
La Salle will face No. 8 Massachusetts in the first round on Thursday. UMass (17-14, 10-8), which lost to George Washington on Saturday, scored a pair of wins over the Explorers this season, defeating them by 71-65 at La Salle on Jan. 7 and by 66-59 on Feb. 8 at home.
"It doesn't really matter who we play, we just know that we have a game on Thursday at noon that we have to be ready for," said senior center Jerrell Wright before he knew whom the Explorers would play. Wright finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
La Salle's Jordan Price led all scorers with 21 points. This included Price's making 7 of 9 free throws in the final 1 minute, 26 seconds of the game. La Salle also got 14 rebounds and six points from senior center Steve Zack.
Leading by 12 points in the first half, Dayton, led by Jordan Sibert's 17 points, went ahead by 34-30 on Kendall Pollard's basket with 11:40 remaining. But the Explorers responded with a 16-5 run to lead by 46-39 with 3:44 to play.
Wright scored his biggest basket of the game shortly thereafter, putting back a missed shot by teammate Amar Stukes that pushed the lead back to 50-46 with 40 seconds to play.
Two more Price free throws with three seconds left were crucial as Dayton's Scoochie Smith ended the game with a three-pointer at the buzzer.