Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Fran Dunphy and his La Salle Explorers experienced deja vu heading into the halftime break up 15 Tuesday against Rhode Island in their first round contest at the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament.
When the Explorers ventured to Kingston, R.I. back in late January, Dunphy’s squad had an eerily similar 11-point lead at the half. The Rams outscored La Salle 43-30 in the second half and won by a final score of 72-70, splitting the season series.
“You worry about those things,” Dunphy said about his thoughts about halftime. “In Rhode Island’s mind, they’re not done yet, and they’re thinking about coming back. And we have that memory of not holding that lead like we wanted when we played them up at Rhode Island.”
La Salle sophoimore Daeshon Shepherd tallied 15 points and 11 rebounds in Tuesday's first-round win. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
However, the Explorers weren’t playing in the Ryan Center on Tuesday evening. They were playing at the Barclays Center in a do-or-die game and Dunphy’s first postseason game as the head coach of his alma mater.
La Salle put together a tremendous team shooting and rebounding performance for their 74-year old head coach after losing their last five regular season games. The Explorers shot 31-of-62 (50%) from the field, out rebounded the Rams 51-32, and won by a final of 73-56, setting up a second round matchup with No. 6 Duquesne Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re not a selfish team,” said sophomore Daeshon Shepherd, who had a 15-point 11-rebound double-double. “Everyone got good shots. I felt like we took amazing shots today.
“I feel like last game we played, we didn't really do good on rebounding. So I knew I had – not just me, but everyone else who gets down there and rebounds felt like we had to box them out and get extra possessions for our teammates, and I feel like we did that today.”
“The message really was it’s a new season,” junior Jhamir Brickus said. “It’s 0-0. We were going to leave it all out there and go hard. We all stuck together today, and we went and left everything out there, and we came up with the win.”
La Salle junior guard Jhamir Brickus scored a team-high 18 points Tuesday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
La Salle advanced to the second round of the 2021-2022 A-10 tournament, but lost to the then 5th seeded Saint. Louis, denying the Explorers their first quarterfinal appearance since 2015.
La Salle has not made the NCAA tournament since 2012-2013 back when John Gianinni was its head coach. But that team didn’t even win the A-10 tournament that season, they lost to Butler in the quarterfinals and received an at-large bid.
In fact, the Explorers have never won, or advanced past the quarterfinals, of the A-10 tournament since joining the conference after the 1994-1995 season.
Dunphy got hired to provide his alma mater with more postseason success than in years past.
“My alma mater is the reason why I came back,” Dunphy said when asked about what this postseason means to him. “It’s not something that I campaigned for. They asked and I said I would do it.”
La Salle was streaky in its last 10 regular season games. The Explorers won five straight games from Feb. 1-15, but limped into the postseason since then losing their last five games by an average of more than 10 points per game.
But the players didn’t let their poor ending to the season affect their postseason. They believed in what the 31-year head coach is trying to do at La Salle and have stayed positive.
“We’re coming off a five-game skid here, and they never wavered over the last five games,” Dunphy said. “Their spirit has been good. We haven’t been perfect at practice, but there hasn’t been a lot of hanging heads.
“We’ve always said that now we have a chance to go to our conference tournament. And who knows, the old thought of “why not us?”
Brickus embodied that thought and played fearlessly with the ball from the jump. The Coatesville native did his damage off the dribble, slashing through the lane to the cup or posting up and spinning off his defender for the mid-range jumper.
The sophomore, who’s leading the team in field goal percentage this year (45.4%), finished with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and two rebounds.
“He was pretty terrific all game long,” Dunphy said. “He’s got great poise and understanding of the game.”
“I was just trying to do whatever it took for my team to win today,” Brickus added.
La Salle's Anwar Gil scored 10 points and grabbed eight boards Tuesday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
His energy and play was contagious as three other Explorers entered double-figures, like sophomore Khalil Brantley (11 points) and junior Anwar Gil (10 points). But Shepherd made the biggest impact.
The Archbishop Wood product stayed active on the glass and made the most of his scoring opportunities. The 6-foot-5 forward shot 7-of-10 from the field, played eight more minutes (26) than average (18), and recorded his second career double-double.
“I thought Shep did a terrific job,” Dunphy said. “He’s just a hellacious athlete. It’s fun to watch him play. [It's] fun to watch these guys find him on drives or runs to the basket so they can hammer a few dunks down, which is always nice.”
“He’s as high a jumper as I ever coached. When he decides he’s going to rebound, he’s getting it, and he’s a couple of feet above the rim. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
La Salle’s 51 rebounds (13 offensive) translated into 16 second-chance points. It was a team effort for the Explorers who had eight different players register a board. Senior 6-foot-8 forward Hassan Drame tied Shepherd’s rebounding total with 11 (four offensive).
La Salle’s defense dominated for a large stretch. Their fluid rotations and quick closeouts forced Rhode Island into difficult shots and prevented the Rams from getting into any rhythm. Archie Miller’s squad went 17-of-58 from the field and 5-of-22 from three.
A big reason why the Rams struggled offensively was that La Salle shut down their leading scorer, Ishmael Leggett (16.4 points per game).
Legget scored 20 points in their comeback win over La Salle back in January and Dunphy made sure that Legget didn’t replicate his performance. The 6-foot-3 sophomore scored 11 points on 4-of-19 shooting from the field and 1-of-8 from three.
“We did a pretty good job on Leggett today,” Dunphy said. “We let him come up for air a couple of times. But he’s a really good player and a really good scorer.
“Our defensive numbers were good. We limited them to not too many threes in the game. I’ll take that.”
La Salle lost its only regular season meeting with Duquesne at Tom Gola Arena 91-74 during a five-game losing streak on Feb. 22. The 91 points were the second most they allowed all season, allowing 92 to George Washington three days later.
Duquesne averages 75 points per game and shoots 44% from the field per game behind juniors Dae Dae Grant (15.2 points per game) and Jimmy Clark (11.7 points per game).
Dunphy’s squad knows that the Dukes will be a challenge, but La Salle has learned a lot since then and is ready for the rematch.
“Last time we played them, we had a lot of defensive lapses,” Brickus said. “So tomorrow, as long as we stay together, stay connected, I feel like we’ll be in a great position to win.”
“Going into tomorrow’s game, we can’t back down,” Shepherd added. “We can’t give up. Last time we played them, I felt like we gave up a little bit.
“We’re coming back for revenge tomorrow.”
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