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La Salle carrying momentum into A-10 tourney

Coming off a victory over Dayton, the eighth-seeded Explorers meet ninth-seeded UMass today.

La Salle's Steve Zack looks to shoot the basketball over Saint Joseph's Isaiah Miles. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
La Salle's Steve Zack looks to shoot the basketball over Saint Joseph's Isaiah Miles. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

ONE GAME can do a lot to the psyche of a college athlete.

At least that's what La Salle is hoping proves true as it begins play in the Atlantic 10 Tournament today at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. The ninth-seeded Explorers tip off with No. 8 Massachusetts at noon. And they're hoping the game that preceded it has a lot of affect on today's outcome and beyond.

That game, of course, is La Salle's 55-53 victory Saturday over second-seeded Dayton - a team that was just outside the Top 25 last week - on Senior Night at Tom Gola Arena.

The win, which snapped a four game losing skid, had the typical recipe of a 2014-15 Explorers victory. It had senior leadership: forwards Jerrell Wright (11 points, 10 boards) and Steve Zack (6 points, 14 rebounds) celebrated Senior Night in style.

The Jordan Price effect was on display, too: The redshirt sophomore transfer from Auburn, who leads the Explorers in scoring, poured in a game-high 21 points.

And the team that's predicated on defense held the Flyers to 39.5 percent shooting. Dayton's 53 points were the fewest scored against La Salle in over a month.

Whether it has a lasting effect at the Barclays Center, a place La Salle is 0-4 in (0-2 this year), remains to be seen.

"We've got a lot of energy," Zack said. "That Dayton win on Senior Night really helped us out a lot so we're coming up to Brooklyn on a mission. We know what we have to do. We know what's ahead of us."

"I think that the players and teams at this level are conditioned to just work hard and be focused on the next game," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "But there's no denying that having a good win in your last game brings positivity. When you lose, you might be focused and you might be hungry - but disappointment is fueling that a little bit. I certainly think it's better to have positivity fueling your motivation and I think our guys are confident right now and they feel good, and that last win has a lot to do with it."

Before beating Dayton, La Salle's four-game losing streak started with a loss to last-place Saint Louis and finished with a 55-50 setback to Big 5 rival Saint Joseph's, the league's 10th seed.

The Explorers (16-15, 8-10 Atlantic 10) have beaten five of the league's top seven seeds. They've also lost to the bottom three. They lost twice to UMass.

That alone speaks to how wide open the A-10 tourney is this year and yearly, for that matter.

"Ironically, the eighth-place team, which we didn't beat, is UMass," Giannini said. "Physically they present problems for us. But mentally, which I think is the most important thing all the time and especially in the postseason, I think it's a team that our players are going to be really focused on and really motivated against."

There's a cliché that says it's tough to beat a team three times in one season. Maybe the Explorers can draw something from that. Then maybe they'll get a shot at top-seeded Davidson next in tomorrow's quarterfinals, one of two teams in the top seven they haven't beaten.

"Whoever we play, we play," Giannini said. "We're not afraid of anyone and we're not overconfident against anyone. We're mature and we think everyone in this league is good. Every game is 50-50. We don't look at it like fans and look at someone's record and say we should beat this team or we shouldn't beat that team."

Anything can happen in March. We're just 2 years removed from Tyrone Garland's "Southwest Philly Floater," which sent the Explorers to the Sweet 16.

Wright and Zack are the only remaining key contributors from that group. They know better than to look past UMass.

"Right now we're just worried about UMass and taking it one game at a time," Wright said. "We know for us to play Davidson we have to play UMass. We can't overlook UMass, we lost twice to them this year."

"Mentally it's a good draw for us," Giannini said, "because we have the confidence coming off of the Dayton game, but we have the hunger of knowing that UMass is good and we have to play really hard against them. It's actually scripted pretty well for me as a coach."

Crazy scripts are often written this time of year.