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La Salle in the Sweet 16: Philadelphia story is no underdog's tale

The Atlantic 10 team playing Wichita State on Thursday night has a history. It's been in the NCAA tournament 11 times before, and it won the title in 1954.

March 27, 2013|Chris Dufresne
  • Tyrone Garland had 17 points for La Salle in their victory over Ole Miss, 76-74, advancing the Explorers to the Sweet 16 where they'll face Wichita State.
Tyrone Garland had 17 points for La Salle in their victory over Ole Miss,… (David Eulitt / McClatchy-Tribune )

The message was clear and it came with accent, attitude and a side of sauce:

Don't even start with the insulting line of questioning that would somehow suggest La Salle — La Salle! — is an underdog being overshadowed in the NCAA tournament by Florida Gulf Coast.

It could be misconstrued that way as No. 13 La Salle (24-9) prepares for Thursday night's West Regional semifinal game against No. 9 Wichita State (28-8) at Staples Center.

In any other year, La Salle would be the darling of this dance.

For one, La Salle's reward for its attempt at history making is a 10:17 p.m. tipoff time in the East — a real night watchmen's special.

That's more national "flashlight" than spotlight.

"I think we have enough shine in the city of Philadelphia," junior guard Tyreek Duren said.

The Explorers are approaching Virginia Commonwealth territory as they look to become the second "play-in" winner to reach the Final Four.

La Salle's unique Philadelphia story is worth being told. It just isn't the story of the first No. 15 school to reach the Sweet 16. La Salle's coach isn't married to a supermodel.

Florida Gulf Coast has sucked up all the lower-seeding oxygen since stunning No. 2 Georgetown last Friday night.

"I mean, absolutely, we want to get praised for what we're doing, but we also don't want to get caught up into that," La Salle senior guard Ramon Galloway said. "It's not really our job to say we should be on TV or we should be doing this."

La Salle doesn't think it should even be in this discussion. Yes, only two seeding lines separate the school from Florida Gulf Coast, but seriously?

La Salle might seem like something to cuddle after the Explorers barely got into the tournament as one of the last four at-large teams. La Salle had to defeat Boise State on March 20 in Dayton, Ohio, just to get in the field of 64. The Explorers then eliminated Kansas State and Mississippi on their way to Los Angeles.

The game-winner against Ole Miss came on what Tyrone Garland called his "Southwest Philly Floater," a shot he learned on the Philadelphia playgrounds as a way to get a shot over bigger defenders. Who knew it would come in so handy someday against a 6-foot-9 Mississippi player?

La Salle players have not been home since the tournament started, going from Dayton to Kansas City, Mo., and then to L.A.

The Explorers have more local flavor than a cheese steak, with four of their key contributors hailing from the City of Brotherly Love. The Catholic school of 3,500 students is six miles from the city center.

The three Philly players brought in for Wednesday's media interview sessions were real cut-ups, an air freshener compared with the usual blandness of most NCAA-conducted Q&As.

They spoke of the characteristics of being a "Philly" player.

"Be tough, all tough," Garland said. "And we're fearless. Anywhere we go we have that Philly swag with us, and we're just ready to play against anybody."

Galloway, the team's leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, touted Garland's career at John Bartram High, where he scored the third-most points in Philadelphia Public League history.

"He's in the record book behind Wilt Chamberlain, which is awesome, Galloway said. "I can't say that."

La Salle is only the fifth No. 13 seed to reach the Sweet 16 as it tries to be the first to reach the Elite Eight. The Explorers are making their first NCAA appearance since 1992.

It sounds like a good story, but don't call it a feel-good story.

"We're a school that's won a national championship," ninth-year Coach John Giannini said. "This is our 12th NCAA tournament. It's not our second year of eligibility. This is a school that has the third-most national players of the year. We play in one of the top six conferences in the country. So we're not rags to riches."

La Salle was a national power in the 1950s, winning the NIT in 1952 and the NCAA title in 1954, and finishing second to San Francisco in 1955.

The Explorers were led by Tom Gola, one of the great players in college basketball history. Gola was four-time first-team All American and still holds the NCAA career rebounding record with 2,201.

The program has since had a few missteps and hiccups. The 1969 team was 23-1, but probation kept it out of the NCAA tournament.

Former Lakers coach Paul Westhead led La Salle to tournament appearances in 1975 and '78, but the Explorers haven't been back since Speedy Morris' team made it in 1992.

Just don't say La Salle is lucky to be back now. The Explorers are the only team left standing from the five-bid Atlantic 10, a highly respected mid-major league.

Florida Gulf Coast may have defeated Miami, but it also lost to Lipscomb — twice.

La Salle beat Villanova, won at VCU and also defeated Butler.

"This isn't an upset thing," Giannini said of La Salle. "This is not a low-major success story who all of a sudden gets on a big stage, and wow…. I don't think you could possibly call a school out of the Atlantic 10 that gets to this level a surprise."

Who ever suggested that?

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