Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Junior Jhamir Brickus and sophomore Khalil Brantley took care of business so far at the Barclays Center in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
For a time, however, the pair competed against one another.
“It’s a funny story,” the 6-foot-1 Brantley said. “Me and Jha been playing against each other since we was like in the third or fourth grade. So growing up, we were always seeing each other on the AAU circuit.
“Jha was actually the first person I called when I got recruited to come to La Salle. He definitely brought me in.”
Brickus and Brantley played off one another all-night in their second round contest with No. 6 Duquesne. The duo relentlessly darted to the cup, knocked down jump shots, and assisted each other.
The old competitors combined for 45 points — 23 from Brickus and 22 from Brantley —and propelled La Salle to its first A-10 quarterfinal appearance since 2015, defeating Duquesne 81-70, and setting up a matchup with No. 3 Fordham.
La Salle junior Jhamir Brickus scored 23 points in Wednesday's win over Duquesne. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“These two guys were great,” head coach Fran Dunphy said. “They got to the rim, they dished, they scored some. But it’s a pleasure to watch them do their thing together, sort of like a fire and ice, as it were.”
Brickus followed up his dominant performance Tuesday against Rhode Island (18 points, 7-of-10 FG) and scored 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting. The 5-foot-11 guard fell two points shy of his career high (25 pts) and added three rebounds, four assists, and three steals.
Brantley did it all for the Explorers like he’s done all season. The Bronx, N.Y. native leads the team in scoring (14.0 ppg), assists (4.0 apg), and steals (1.5 spg). He’s scored in double figures in 26 of 32 games this year and recorded 20 points or more in six games, including La Salle’s win against Duquesne. The sophomore guard totaled 22 points, six rebounds (three offensive), six assists, and two steals.
Dunphy’s two starting guards helped La Salle reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2015 under John Giannini, whose been on the call during the tournament nicknaming Brickus and Brantley the “Killer B’s.”
“Coming into the game,” Brantley said. “It was like – when we played them at our house, it was a lot of trash talking, me talking to the twins [Hassan and Fousseyni Drame] and Mamadou [Doucoure] all day.
“Honestly, I had a good feeling about today. I’m talking, like, we’re gonna get this one today. We’re gonna get this one. We’re not going to let what happened the last game happen this game. Them three [the twins and Doucoure], had a big, big, part of us winning today.”
La Salle faced Duquesne for the second time in two weeks in the A-10 tournament’s second round. The Explorers played the Dukes once during the 2022-2023 regular season on February 22, losing at Tom Gola Arena, 91-74. La Salle only trailed by three at halftime, but Duquesne ran away with the game and shot La Salle out of the gym.
The Dukes shot 56% from the field as a team and scored 52 points in the paint in the Feb. 22 contest. The 91 points La Salle allowed was tied for the most that their defense gave up all season to that point (they allowed 92 three days later to George Washington).
On Wednesday night, the Explorers allowed 20 points in the paint and held Duquesne to 24-of-68 from the field (35%) for the game, including 11-of-35 (31 percent) in the second half as they outscored the Duke 54-37 over the final 20 minutes.
“I thought everybody was on their assignments,” Dunphy added about their improved defensive effort. “I thought we walled up well. But I just think our guards took care of a lot of it. They kept people in front of them. So there wasn’t a lot of drop-offs to those guys.”
Along with their defensive efforts, Hassan and Fousseyni Drame scored eight points each and combined for 10 rebounds, while their fellow Malian Doucoure scored seven and pulled down seven boards (two offensive).
La Salle trailed 33-27 at the halftime break due in part to their 10 turnovers which Duquesne turned into nine points for themselves. Dunphy’s squad corrected themselves at the halftime break and only turned the ball over four more times the remainder of the game.
“I thought we did really, really well in the second half,” Dunphy said. “We didn’t turn it over. I thought we were on top of our game in the second half.”
Brickus and Brantley’s playmaking was a difference maker in the second half. La Salle’s fire and ice took turns handling the rock, carving through Duquense’s defense, and knocking down game-sealing free throws.
“We love playing with each other,” Brantley said. “We might have a couple of possessions that you all see where I might go, and then I’ll be like Jha, you got it, you go. There’s no selfishness out there. We don’t try to outdo each other.
“He plays within himself, and I try to bring what I bring to the table.”
“From what I see out there, we’re really just taking what the defense gives us,” Brickus added. “A lot of teams have been playing high, so we’ve just been opening up driving lanes and creating for our teammates.”
The two guards combined for 34 points in the second half, but their leadership was critical as to why La Salle didn't relinquish the lead after a Brickus lay-up put La Salle up 50-49 with 10:45 remaining in the game.
“I think he’s growing every game,” Dunphy said about Brantley and Brickus’ leadership . “And Jig [Jhamir Brickus] is very good at it, too. Jig knows the game as well as anybody I’ve coached in a long, long time. And KB [Khalil Brantley] is getting better at that part of it.
“(They) know when to get on somebody, but also know when to pump them up as well.”
Dunphy will need his guards to replicate their performance if they want to upset No. 3 Fordham. La Salle played the Ram one time this season and lost 66-64 at Tom Gola Arena after Fordham junior Antrell Charlton drained a mid-range jumper at the buzzer.
Dunphy knows it won’t be an easy task for a team that’s still growing each game, but a win would put La Salle into the A-10 semifinals for the first time since the 2002 season.
“We’re a work in progress still,” Dunphy said. “Hopefully we can continue to grow a little bit. We’ve got, obviously, a very tough assignment tomorrow.”
The Explorers have lost four straight games to Fordham dating back to 2021. Brickus knows that staunch defense will create opportunities for their offense. Brantley, on the other hand, is itching for revenge.
“We’ve got to get them back,” he said. “They beat us at the buzzer at our house earlier in the season and we only got to play them one time. So this is like a comeback game for us.”
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