By Finn Courtney (@FCourtney27)
OLNEY — With a team abound with inexperience and youth, the La Salle Explorers (3-4) are bound for ups and downs all throughout the 2023-24 season. That’s the way their first six games played out : win, loss, win, loss, win, loss.
Sunday’s game against the Virginia Cavaliers (6-2) certainly marked a down — with a few ups mixed in — as the Explorers lost, 94-73, dropping consecutive games for the first time this season.
The 94 most points they’ve allowed since the 2020-21 season against Dayton.
“They were really using their size over us into a basket, if we didn’t get a stop on their initial play, they were crashing really hard, so we just need to match their intensity and be more aggressive with them,” graduate guard Makayla Miller said post-game. “I thought that my team did a good effort of being aggressive and trying to battle with them. The size advantage was just overwhelming.”
La Salle graduate guard Makayla Miller scored 15 points in Sunday's loss to Virginia. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
Miller, coming off a 23-point game at Penn, continued to showcase all aspects as she led the team in scoring again with 15 points and rebounds with seven, dazzling her way to the hoop with multiple superb moves.
Missing rotation pieces in leading scorer Aryss Macktoon (10.8 ppg), starting forward Emilee Tahata and freshman guard Laia Monclova, Explorers coach Mountain MacGillivray has had to do what he’s done all season, go deep on an inexperienced, young roster of players and see who’d step up.
It was Tiara Bolden’s turn Sunday.
Bolden, a transfer from Eastern Arizona, is averaging just 5.2 ppg and 3.8 rbg in 17 minutes in a reserve role but she’s seen her playing time tick up as of late. Following a season-high nine points in 21 minutes against Penn on Wednesday, she had her best game as an Explorer against Virginia
Bolden scored nine first-half points, going 3-for-7 from three-point range, and finished with 14 points and 6 six rebounds, both her top marks in a La Salle uniform.
“[Tiara] can play. She’s a really good on-ball defender, she’s a really good rebounder, she can score at two levels for sure,” MacGillivray said. “It’s just a matter of you guys getting to see what we see everyday in practice and you got to see it tonight.”
From the get-go, it looked like a rout for the Cavaliers as early unforced mistakes by La Salle — a blown pass and missed lay-in on back to back possessions — allowed Virginia to take an early 17-5 lead by the 5:30 mark.
Virginia sophomore guard Paris Clark led the way with eight points in just five minutes of first quarter action. For Amaka Agugua-Hamilton’s team, a deadly transition offense that had them seemingly scoring at will and a smooth defensive effort set up multiple baskets, with seven Virginia players scoring in the first quarter.
Her team also got to the charity stripe and converted, going 23-for-25 on free throws, and La Salle, while could not match their ability to draw fouls, only going nine-for-13 on the day.
“We are not excessively foul-prone, we were not our best positionally tonight, we could have been better but Virginia goes to the basket hard, they got kids who can make plays and you get in foul trouble when that happens,” MacGillivray said. “There’s probably 15 possessions we could have better and there wouldn’t have been a foul on but […] it’s what they do.”
The second quarter was chockfull of offensive possessions stalling out for the Explorers and more mental errors, especially with finishing layups. They were able to get it back to single digits several times though, led by an all-around solid performance from junior guard Nicole Melious.
Melious, one of the greatest players in New York basketball history and New York city’s all-time leading scorer, came into La Salle with much acclaim and has not disappointed as she’s been second in the team scoring. Melious finished with 13 points on the day, showcasing every part of what made her such a dynamic scorer in high school.
While the Explorers adjusted and held Clark scoreless in the second quarter, they were unable to do the same for freshman guard Kymora Johnson who had a sensational day, with 10 points in the second quarter alone. Johnson was perfect, not missing a shot from the field (six-for-six) and finished with 17 points and four assists.
Coming out of the half down 12, La Salle looked promising early, but a 12-0 run near the end of the third quarter allowed Virginia to pull away and extend its lead to as large as 20 points before being broken by a Miller three-pointer.
Lost in the shuffle of the loss was freshman center Amber Bullard’s first start as an Explorer. An alumni of nearby Christian Academy who didn’t play organized hoops until her sophomore year, Bullard was given the chance to start against a Power 5 school in Virginia and played well, finishing with 10 points and 4 rebounds, both career-highs. Just a freshman, today feels like a sign of good things to come for the Philadelphia native.
“We’re just trying to maintain what we’re doing everyday, so everyday, she’s out there trying to prepare herself to get better and better,” MacGillivray said. “She still has a lot of room to grow in protecting the basket and rebounding in there, but that’s the nature of being a freshman and the nature of having a lot of inexperience on the roster that we’re growing every night.”
While ‘sharing the wealth’ may have been the line of the day for Virginia’s offense with 12 distinct scorers, Clark and Johnson finished with a combined 29 points to lead the Cavaliers. La Salle surrendered 20 turnovers and was outmatched on the glass, getting outrebounded 43-28.
There is no rest for the weary, and that is certainly true for the Explorers as their next clash comes with another Power 5 conference opponent in Rutgers who are riding back-to-back wins. They’ll tip-off at 7:00 p.m. this coming Thursday from the Jersey Mike’s Arena, with La Salle looking to snap a two-game losing streak.
“We need to make sure our turnover percentage is low, 20 is too high tonight because we know that there were at least seven that Virginia had nothing to do with,” MacGillivray said, “[and] if we can mitigate the rebounding margin and have it be competitive, we have enough explosive firepower that […] we’re gonna be in good shape.”