Ashley Howard (above) and his Explorers got a wake-up call in their Atlantic 10 opener on Thursday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
Ashley Howard wasn’t going to wait for the under-four media timeout. He couldn’t afford it.
La Salle had been stuck on 14 for almost five minutes, watching its deficit balloon. Six quickly became 16, and after Dayton drilled its seventh straight field goal to make it a 38-14 game late in the first half, the second-year coach asked for time.
“All credit goes to Dayton. They’re a really good team,” Howard said. “Great chemistry and they play with great pace. Until you see it live, you don’t get a feel for it — it’s hard to simulate.”
It wasn’t as if the Explorers were unprepared for the 20th-ranked Flyers.
La Salle had already taken on a pair of high-major opponents this season — Temple and Villanova — and it stuck around with those teams despite trailing most of the way and ultimately coming up short.
And Howard said that in the days since his team’s most recent game, a 71-59 victory against Bucknell, he’d felt they’d prepared well for a talented Dayton team that is clearly the class of the Atlantic 10.
But after taking that early punch from the Flyers, the Explorers didn’t put up any type of fight in an 84-58 loss at Tom Gola Arena.
“I look at every game right now as a measuring stick because we’re still very much in the early stages of building this program,” Howard said. “The one thing that I would’ve liked to seen tonight was just more fight and a more competitive spirit.”
For a minute, it looked like La Salle was ready to battle. The Explorers led 4-3 in the early minutes before Dayton broke off a quick 6-0 spurt, forcing Howard into an early timeout.
There were no expletives or head shaking from the coach at that point — something that couldn’t be said later in the night — and his Explorers hung tough with the score 17-12 at the second TV timeout.
But slowing down potential NBA draft lottery pick Obi Toppin and the Flyers wasn’t going to be that simple. By halftime, Dayton had opened up a 22-point advantage and was shooting 68 percent from the field as a team.
“We had some scoring issues early in the game that affected our fight,” Howard said. “I just felt like midway through the first half, we lost our fight once we couldn’t generate easy offense. And that’s all Dayton.”
Dayton cooled off slightly after the break, but it didn’t really matter. La Salle never got any closer and the Flyers led by as many as 31, putting five different players in double figures — including Toppin, who wound up with 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and four assists.
There wasn’t much that went right for the Explorers. It took them almost 26 minutes to make their first 3-pointer and they shot just 17.6 percent from distance — well below their season average of 34.3 percent.
And defensively, La Salle continued to allow Dayton to get to the paint. The Flyers scored 48 of their 84 points in the lane, a problem that showed itself in losses to both Villanova and Penn.
“I didn’t think we played any defense,” Howard said. “Our defense was nonexistent and our communication was bad. … We just let it slip because we weren’t scoring and then our attention to detail and energy on the defensive end just fell apart.”
But if there was a positive to come from Thursday night, it was yet another set of strong showings from the Explorers’ younger guys. Sophomore big man Ed Croswell led the way with 14 points and seven boards, and freshman Ayinde Hakim scored nine points off the bench in 26 minutes.
The other plus is that La Salle won’t have to deal with Dayton, now No. 8 in the country according to KenPom, again until the postseason.
But the road doesn’t get any easier in the coming weeks. The Explorers play four of their next five games away from home, all leading up to a visit from Virginia Commonwealth — the conference’s other top team, and one that will likely be in contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid come March.
At the night’s penultimate media timeout, fans began streaming out of Gola Arena, leaving most of the noise to a solid Dayton contingent that had made the trip from Ohio.
And by the time the final horn sounded, La Salle’s five straight wins and the Explorers’ 9-3 start to the season seemed somewhat of a distant memory.
“This was a reality check,” Howard said. “We played some opponents that weren’t at the same level as the Atlantic 10 and we won those games. I was afraid that we might get a little overconfident and a false sense of where we are. Today put us right back in check.”