Sam Istvan (@sistvan_14)
It has been a week full of frustration and missed shots for Josh Nickelberry. Yet, he remained defiant and determined, and on Saturday he turned the tide in a big way.
Across two tough Big 5 matchups last Sunday against Villanova and Wednesday against Temple, Nickelberry, a 6-foot-4 junior transfer from Louisville, didn’t make a single field goal. He had only two made free throws to his name in the scoring column in those games.
Josh Nickelberry (above, in October) broke an 0-for-15 field goal slump with a career-high 28 points on Saturday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
He entered a weekend matchup against visiting Holy Cross zero for his last 15 field goal attempts. He didn’t just buck that trend on Saturday, he destroyed it to the tune of a career-high 28 points to lead the Explorers to an 84-65 win.
“I’ve had a pretty tough week,” Nickelberry said, “so these past few days, I've been in the gym a ton just seeing the ball go in. And I just came out and shot the same way. I knew I put in the work and I just played the game.”
After the game, La Salle head coach Ashley Howard revealed that Nickelberry was dealing with an entirely different type of adversity than just missing shots.
“He lost his grandfather this week,” Howard said. “And he found out a couple days ago.”
In the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, Nickelberry went to a familiar place to find comfort and escape.
“He's just been in the gym getting up shots, keeping his mind off of things,” said Howard. “After the Temple game, I just called to check on him and he was in the gym at like midnight, shooting.”
Howard was not surprised to find Nickelberry, in the face of hardship, logging late night hours in the gym.
“That’s just who he is," Howard said. "He's a gym rat. He's a great kid.”
Nickelberry echoed his coach’s appraisal of him, reaffirming that his mentality would not change even as he transitions from the ACC to the A-10.
“Work, work, work... doesn't matter what level I’m at,” Nickelberry said. “These guys are just as good as those guys. So, I gotta work every day.”
On Saturday, that work paid off and La Salle fed off of Nickelberry’s performance. After a sluggish second half start in a close contest, Nickelberry drained a triple to pull La Salle even with Holy Cross at 42. From there, the Explorers embarked on a 14-2 run.
Later in the half, as Holy Cross cut the La Salle lead to two, Nickelberry was there to answer again, scoring 11 points in a 15-2 La Salle run that all but decided the outcome.
Nickelberry led all scorers with his 28 points, while redshirt senior Clifton Moore chipped in 15 points and sophomore Jhamir Brickus added 10.
The Explorers were also buoyed by the debut of Daeshon Shepherd, the 6-4 freshman wing out of Archbishop Wood.
Shepherd battled long-term effects from contracting Covid-19, and then a significant foot injury in his long-winding road back to the court. He didn’t miss a step in his return though, managing seven points in his first half of collegiate basketball on a perfect 3-3 (1-1 3PT) from the field.
“It was awesome,” Howard said, “He’s moving around and he’s defending and he’s playing with energy … We can use exactly what he's doing to help our team.”
As La Salle enters the final stretch of their non-conference slate, if they hope to put a tough start to their season behind them and improve upon last year’s 6-11 conference record, they’ll likely need guys like Shepherd and Nickelberry to continue to build on what they showed on Saturday.
When asked whether La Salle’s resounding victory represented a turning point, Howard expressed optimism.
“I hope so," Howard said. "When you have that type of commitment, and you stay the course, good things happen.”