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La Salle men searching for team identity

01/08/2022, 6:30pm EST
By Joseph Santoliquito

Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)

On the far baseline of La Salle’s Tom Gola Arena sits a pantheon of history. They sit looking down, as they should, the retired fabled La Salle jersey number banners of Tom Gola, Larry Cannon, Lionel Simmons, Michael Brooks and Kenny Durrett.

If all of that history could talk, what would they say to Ashley Howard? What kind of advice would they offer the La Salle men’s basketball coach in the throes of a difficult season?

Clifton Moore dunks a basketball

Clifton Moore (above) has been a bright spot for the Explorers recently, scoring a team-high 21 in Saturday's loss. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

One thing is certain, Howard is not bending. He never has.

La Salle lost to visiting Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, 85-66, at the Gola Arena, leading once, 2-0, before falling to 5-7 overall and 0-2 in the Atlantic 10.

It was another trying time for Howard and his team. In fairness, the Explorers were playing without their starting backcourt in sophomore point guard Jhamir Brickus and their leading scorer, Josh Nickelberry and his 11.9 scoring average, due to COVID protocol.

Combined, that was over 20 points missing from the Explorers’ lineup.

But it is a team still trying to find an identity.

Redshirt senior Clifton Moore, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound center from Hatboro-Horsham, has shined recently, scoring a team-high 21 against VCU after scoring 26 in the Explorers’ 69-61 loss to Fordham on Dec. 30.

Howard won at Monsignor Bonner. He won as an assistant coach at Villanova. He won as a player at La Salle.

“I think what’s helped me is that I’ve gone through real-life adversity before, and going through real-life adversity, I believe, has put me in a position to be a real leader,” Howard said. “If I was someone who was never through life-real adversity before, going through this with these young people, how do I lead them?

“You go through adversity for a reason. It makes you stronger in certain ways. I believe everything that we’re going through now is going to make us stronger. It’s going to make us better. There is going to be light at the end of the tunnel eventually. I’ve been through some unbelievable experiences in basketball, during my time with ‘coach’ (Villanova’s Jay Wright).

“I’m not giving up. I see our guys coming back every single day to get better. Our practices have been great. They’ve been intense, they’ve been purposeful. These are guys the university should be proud of.

“Coaching La Salle University is the opportunity of a lifetime. You have your peaks and valleys, and once we get through this, we’re going to be better moving on.”

La Salle started well. VCU turned the ball over on the opening tap and the Explorers’ Jack Clark threw a lead pass to Anwar Gill for a slam 19 seconds into the game.

That was it.

La Salle turned the ball over 19 times in the game, which the Rams converted into 30 points.

With 11:59 left in the first half, anyone sitting by the La Salle bench could hear the very animated Howard imploring his team: “We aren’t going out like this; there’s still lot of basketball to be played; you guys are better than this; attack the rim; drive through.”

La Salle responded with baskets the next two trips down the floor. But the following trip, the Explorers turned the ball over and VCU’s Jalen DeLoach slammed the Rams to a 24-10 lead.

At one point, with 11:30 left to play, Howard kneeled in front of the scorer’s table and patted his brow after VCU’s Jayden Nunn scored on a driving layup with :02 left on the shot clock. It was another case of good defense with a last-second breakdown.

With 4:21 left, Howard was trying to grab anything he could to get an answer, constantly pulling players aside for a teaching moment, constantly encouraging.

Khalil Brantley dribbles a basketball

Khalil Brantley (above) chipped in 18 points coming off the bench. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

In the meantime, La Salle couldn’t do anything offensively. When the Explorers were not turning over the ball, many possessions went deep into the shot clock.

The COVID situation hasn’t helped.

Howard, who may have spent as much time pacing on the court as his players did playing on the court, didn’t have enough players to practice this week. Consequently, Howard and his coaching staff got out and practiced with the team trying to simulate VCU’s frenetic press and trap.

Is there anything positive Howard has seen in practice that is translating into games?

“Yes, dives that kept us in the game early,” he said. “We were down 12 and there was a loose ball where (Christian Ray) dove and Khalil Brantley dove for a loose ball. That’s who we have to be. That has to be La Salle basketball. That’s what I want to see.

“I saw more hustle plays. We didn’t lay down. I thought we battled. We couldn’t get over the hump. We couldn’t get there. I wouldn’t say it was because of a lack of effort.”

Moore seems to be emerging, and Howard said if Moore can get it going, more can be done around him.

And what would those fabled La Salle jersey banners whisper to Howard when the lights are out?

You have the feeling they would tell him to keep doing what he’s been doing; keeping believing.

“I believe God put me in this position for a reason and your attitude determines everything,” Howard said. “I’ll never bend to adversity.”

If they had hands, the banners might applaud.

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.

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