La Salle coach Ashley Howard (above) watches on as his team dropped a 77-76 decision to Saint Louis on Wednesday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
La Salle’s game against Saint Louis on Wednesday was a microcosm of the Explorers’ season thus far. There were some positive signs, some frustrations; some strong performances, some disappointing ones.
Unfortunately for Ashley Howard’s second La Salle squad, that also meant the night at Tom Gola Arena ended with the scoreboard reading the wrong way yet again.
After being down 13 in the second half, the Explorers were able to force overtime thanks in large part to a career day from one of their underclassmen.
The Explorers had a chance to pull off the upset with one second remaining in the extra period. Senior guard Isiah Deas missed a 3-pointer and got his own rebound, but after a flurry of tips, the Explorers couldn't put the ball into the net and the Billikens escaped with a 77-76 win.
It was another case of an incomplete effort leading to a loss for a program that started off the season looking better than expected but has shown there’s still a lot of work left to be done over the last three weeks.
After starting the season 9-3, the Explorers have dropped seven of their last eight games, almost the direct opposite of what happened last year. After starting the 2018-19 season losing Howard’s first 10 games at the helm, the Explorers turned things around by going 8-10 in league play.
But despite the disappointing results of late, Howard remained fairly upbeat in the post-game press conference, focusing on the long-term goals rather than the recent results.
“Our culture will be of a team that plays for 40 minutes and doesn’t quit and battles and scraps and digs and claws and give themselves a chance to win every game,” said Howard, who’s in his second year as the Explorers’ coach after spending five years as Jay Wright’s top assistant at Villanova. “Saint Louis is a tough team, I really admire how they play, really admire their tenacious, tenacious attitude, I really do. And one day, I want that to be us, I want us to have that type of mindset, that type of attitude, that type of culture.
“I know that once we have all of the core values of our program intact, then we’ll start winning,” he added. “But we’re not there yet.”
Against the top rebounding team in the Atlantic 10 –– Saint Louis entered play Wednesday night grabbing more than six boards per game more than its opponents –– La Salle (10-10, 1-7 Atlantic 10) was able to hang tough on the glass thanks to sophomore forward Ed Croswell, out-rebounding its opponent 47-42.
Ed Croswell (above) had a career night with 24 points and 18 rebounds, in a career-best 38 minutes. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With fellow sophomore big Jared Kimbrough sidelined due to a concussion, Croswell was able to stay out of foul trouble and play 38 minutes, finishing with his sixth double-double of the season as he set new career highs in both points (24) and rebounds (18), in addition to his new high in time on the court.
Croswell’s production alone was almost enough to offset that of the Billikens’ potent frontcourt duo, Jordan Goodwin (12 points/16 rebounds) and Hasahn French (12 points/11 rebounds), the only two teammates in the country to both average double-doubles.
“It’s just a matter of knowing that we’re playing against a team that wins games on the boards, and just challenging our guys to step up, and Eddie Croswell had 18 rebounds today, 24 and 18,” Howard said. “And Ed is capable of that, and I’m not expecting to get 24 and 18 out of Ed every night, but I am expecting for him to perform like a guy that can compete with Hashan French because he is capable.”
However, outside of Croswell and Deas, who went a combined 18-of-31 from the floor, the remainder of the Explorers shot just 29.4% (10-of-34).
Of the eight Explorers who received playing time against the Billikens, three of them –– guards Ayinde Hikim and Christian Ray and forward Brandon Stone –– are freshmen. Hikim and Ray each played 25 minutes while Stone logged in 12 minutes off the bench.
In addition to the injury of Kimbrough, the Explorers were also missing freshman guard Sherif Kenney and graduate forward Moustapha Diagne. Kenney suffered a broken finger in practice this week and is day-to-day. Diagne was out with a lower body injury.
All of that makes it tougher to win in an Atlantic 10 that’s much-improved from a year ago. Last year, only three A-10 teams were inside the KenPom Top 100, with three more inside the Top 150; this season, seven teams are in the Top 100 on KenPom alone, including the number five team in those rankings, Dayton. La Salle's KenPom ranking (172) is significantly better than it was at this point last season (248), but it's still only 10th-best in the 14-team league.
“Our league is a gauntlet,” Howard said. “You look at our last couple games, it’s Saint Louis, VCU, Richmond, Rhode Island, these are all NCAA Tournament teams. Last year we didn’t have those type of teams in the Atlantic 10. It’s a completely different league right now.”
Before the game, La Salle observed a 24-second moment of silence in memory of Kobe Bryant and the eight others who passed away this past Sunday in a Southern California helicopter accident. Bryant’s father, Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant, played at La Salle in the 1970s, scoring more than 1,100 points and grabbing more than 600 rebounds in two seasons before becoming a first-round selection of the Golden State Warriors.
The Explorers all wore warmup shirts that had a large “8.24” on the front, referencing the two numbers the younger Bryant wore during his 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, during which he established himself as not only one of the greatest players of his generation, but a worldwide icon in the sport.
La Salle also honored the other eight individuals who passed away: Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant; John Altobelli, his wife Keri Altobelli, and their daughter Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton Chester, and pilot Ara Zobayan.
Howard, who knew Bryant’s family, held a session with his team on Tuesday night where the players and coaches told their favorite stories of the future Hall-of-Famer. The players remembered watching Bryant as kids and credited him as their motivation for playing basketball. Howard and his coaching staff –– including Donnie Carr, who like Bryant was in the high school class of ‘96 –– recalled seeing Bryant play at Lower Merion High School (or in Carr’s case, competing against him) and watching his evolution with the Lakers.
“I mean, he’s the standard,” Howard said. “He was our poster child...everybody who’s from Philly loved him, admired him, respected his work ethic, respected his desire, respected his body of work, respected his approach to the game, respected his professionalism, respected the fact that he was a great father, great husband.
“Respected the fact that he was a highly-intelligent person that could be successful at anything he wanted to be successful at, as evidenced (by) his Oscar. He was our poster child, he was our role model, he was our everything, man. If you wanted to create the perfect basketball player, in terms of skill, athleticism, work ethic, mentality, it was Kobe Bryant.”