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St. Joe's MBB makes it back-to-back wins with smothering of La Salle

01/16/2023, 5:30pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Has Saint Joseph’s finally gotten over the hump? It’s a question not yet ready to be answered. 

Billy Lange will start with a winning streak.

Cameron Brown (above) led St. Joe's with 20 points in a win over La Salle on Monday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The Hawks’ 71-59 win over La Salle on Monday afternoon was the second in a row for St. Joe’s, which had lost its first four Atlantic 10 games to fall into the basement of the 15-team league. It wasn’t perfect, and there’s still lots of ground to make up to be the program Lange wants it to be, but two wins in a row is much better than the alternative.

“We just don’t know,” the fourth-year coach said when asked if his team finally has the confidence it needs. “We’re so young. This team, they’ve never not believed. What they’re learning is what it takes.”

The Hawks (8-10, 2-4 A-10) began the game with a 12-0 run, giving them a cushion they would hold almost the entire way through. It was 39-27 at halftime, and St. Joe’s led by as many as 20 in the second half before a 12-1 run by the hosts made it a nine-point gap with 4:46 to play. But La Salle (8-10, 2-3) didn’t get any closer, the Hawks’ backcourt playing too well as a unit to be slowed down. 

Cameron Brown paced St. Joe’s with 20 points, making 4-of-7 from 3-point range for his second outing in three games with 20+ points, and his fifth such effort of the season. Erik Reynolds II, St. Joe’s leading scorer on the year (17.2 ppg), bested his average with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and Lynn Greer III chipped in 12 with seven rebounds and six assists, though he did commit seven turnovers.

It was the second straight double-digit win for St. Joe’s, which took down Loyola (Ill.) 86-55 on Saturday, though the Ramblers and Explorers are the two worst teams in the Atlantic 10, according to KenPom’s efficiency ratings.

St. Joe's fourth-year head coach Billy Lange looks on during the Hawks' win on Monday, Jan. 16. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I thought our offense all game was actually fairly good, the shooting numbers will tell you that as well, other than we handed it to them with 22 turnovers,” Lange said. “This is the second game in a row where our starting five has come out and been locked in, mostly on the defensive end, and so that’s the stuff that we’re talking to these guys about right now.”

St. Joe’s performance at Tom Gola Arena on Monday still left much to be desired. The Hawks turned it over 22 times against a below-average Explorer defense, a good bit more than the 13.2/game they averaged coming into the week. But they overcame that by shooting 51% from the floor (26-of-51), with 16 assists on those 26 buckets, and held La Salle below 30% (18-of-61, 29.5%) for the first time all season.

To make it three straight, they’ll have to get past UMass (11-6, 2-3) at home on Saturday.

“We have a saying: see what you believe, become what you see,” Lange said. “They believe they can be good, and they’ve been amazing really all year, from Fairleigh Dickinson to Temple to South Florida to Villanova to Saint Louis, they’ve owned it, and so if they own it, they’re going to put more intentionality into getting better, and that’s more unique in this day and age because it’s always the coach’s fault, and that’s alright, we own that too. 

“I’m pleased with where we are now; we have to get better, though.”

La Salle’s offensive production — or lack thereof — featured far too much 1-on-1 basketball, the Explorers’ guards too often trying to create their own shot instead of finding shots in the flow of the offense, finishing with only seven assists. Sophomore guard Khalil Brantley, the Explorers’ leading scorer on the season (14.9 ppg), finished with seven points on 2-of-16 shooting as Salle lost its second game in a row.

St. Joe's limited Khalil Brantley (above) to seven points on 2-of-16 shooting. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“He tries so hard, he wants to make every play the best he could possibly make it,” Fran Dunphy said. “He just needs to let the game come to him a little bit more.

“We do need to share the ball better, and when you do, it’s coming back to you in many ways, when everybody else will be a better scorer and you’ll be even more open once you get it back again,” the Big 5 legend and first-year La Salle coach added later.

The Explorers’ only consistent source of offense was forward Fousseyni Drame, who scored a career-best 24 points on 6-of-11 shooting. The 6-foot-7 forward, who came into the day with only five 3-pointers on the season, was 3-of-4 from deep, with 13 rebounds, one short of his career mark in that category.

“I thought Fousseyni was terrific today, he didn’t do much wrong out there,” Dunphy said. “They have three double-figure scorers and another with nine; we have one with 24 and nobody else sniffing double figures, so that’s a bad formula.”

The game was the third year in a row St. Joe’s and La Salle had played on Martin Luther King Day, a series started by Lange and former La Salle head coach Ashley Howard. It doesn’t seem like it’s a series that’s going to be ending anytime soon, and Lange has bigger plans ahead for the game.

“The vision is one game in the Palestra where we’re bussing students who are off that day and playing a noon game and getting 8,000 people and putting a logo on the court and videos that honor and celebrate (Dr. King) and talk about a city that’s called Brotherly Love uniting and being an example of racial justice and love right here in the City of Philadelphia. 

“It’s a good start, it got derailed a little bit by COVID, but we have an opportunity to keep it going, but this was a great crowd to honor him, and we’re grateful for that.”

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