Matthew Ryan (@matthewryan02)
When Anwar Gill stepped to the free throw line with La Salle up by two against Army and only 6.3 seconds remaining, Explorer’s coach Ashley Howard got some déjà vu.
Less than two weeks ago, in La Salle’s season-opening loss to Sacred Heart, the Explorers led by three with 20 seconds to go when guard Sherif Kenney missed a free throw; the Pioneers grabbed the rebound and knocked down a 3-pointer on the other end to send the game to overtime. During that sequence, Howard had his players lined up on the free throw line to rebound a potential miss.
“As a coach, I want to control as many things as I can,” Howard said. “In that situation...we missed, and now we’re not matched up, and we gave up an easy basket in the end, and that was on me.”
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and Howard learned from his mistake.
“Today, we had everybody off of the free throw line,” he said. “We were matched up to get a stop late in the game.”
Gill knocked down the first free throw but missed the second, giving the Black Knights one last-ditch effort. As Army came up the court, there was La Salle’s defense, already set up. The Black Knights scrambled to get a look but never did, giving the Explorers the 61-58 victory and improving their record to 2-2.
The contest continued the trend of close games to start the year for La Salle. All four of its games played thus far have either been tied or a one possession outing at the end of regulation. Most recently, the Explorers fell to Delaware in overtime, 85-82, and before that got a 67-64 victory over Albany (N.Y.).
“It’s helping me,” Howard said on playing these nail biters to start the season, “because when you’re in close games, they’re all different types of scenarios that you got to prepare for that you don’t prepare for when you're in blowout games.”
While the Explorers have a lot of experience with close battles to start the season, there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of executing down the stretch.
Entering the game, the Explorers shot just 66.7% from the charity stripe, and on Saturday, that number got even worse. La Salle went just 6-for-11 from the free throw line and only made four of eight tries in the final five minutes.
Jhamir Brickus (above) led La Salle with 14 points in the win. (Photo: Nicole Ambruch/CoBL)
Freshman guard Khalil Brantley — who had his best collegiate game scoring 12 points, all in the first half — missed two free throws late in the second half. Jhamir Brickus, the game's leading scorer with 14 points, split a pair at the line with 25 seconds to go.
The Explorers committed three turnovers in the final 90 seconds, including one with 31 seconds to go by Kenney. Kenney's turnover gave Army a chance to take the lead, but Jalen Rucker missed both free throws, preserving La Salle’s one-point cushion.
The season has started off with some tough wins and losses. Regardless of who has come out on top, Howard is still leaving the game with one thing in mind.
“Whether we win or lose, I’m going to go into the locker room focused on ‘alright, what do we need to do to improve,’” he said. “A lot of times when you win games, and you’re a team that hasn't won, you can win a game and not focus on all the things you didn’t do well, and then have a false sense of security in where you are. I think our guys know where we are. I think we know we need to get better at the details.”
Lewis’ big game leads La Salle past Niagara
When head coach Mountain MacGillivray made his first substitutions in La Salle’s 83-71 victory over Niagara, he did something he hadn’t done all season; take all five players out. It’s something that MacGillivray has wanted to do this season to wear the other teams down, but since he knew that the Purple Eagles would be pressuring his squad all game, he decided it would help keep his players fresh.
One of those players on the second unit was 5-foot-10 junior guard Jordon Lewis who finished with a team-high and season-high 16 points. Lewis entered the game with only 12 points all season and was coming off a year where she played just nine games due to injury. Her performance on Saturday was nearly flawless, shooting 6-for-7 from the field and 4-5 from the free throw line.
“Jordon really stepped up tonight. … Jordon really led her group, got ‘em going, was strong around the basket, drove, made plays, and some really nice extra passes,” MacGillivray said.
Joining Lewis in double figures was Claire Jacobs (4-8 3PT) and Kayla Spruill (5-8 FG and 2-4 3PT), who had 15 points apiece. Jaye Haynes, Christina Kline and Michelle Kozicki all followed with eight points each.
Scoring efficiency had been an issue for the Explorers all season. In their first three games, they made just 33.1% of their shots, but on Saturday, they hit at a 44.6% clip overall, their highest mark of the season.
After a last-place Atlantic-10 finish a year ago in rebounding margin, coming down with misses has been an area of focus for La Salle. Despite Spruill, who was fifth in the nation in rebounds at 13.7 per game entering Saturday, only grabbing six boards, the Explorers still came down with 47 rebounds, seven more than the Purple Eagles. La Salle has now won the rebound battle in three of four games this year.