Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It didn’t take long for Najee Walls to find redemption.
In a tie game against Cedar Crest with a minute remaining and a berth in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals on the line, La Salle coach Joe Dempsey trusted his junior point guard with taking the final shot. Walls got into the lane with six seconds left–and as he went to pull up for a 10-foot jumper, he slipped. His shot would find only the front rim, but Cedar Crest’s desperation heave at the buzzer was well off.
With two minutes left in overtime and his Explorers holding a two-point lead, Walls had the ball in his hands again. This time, he got to the bucket, got the layup, and got fouled.
La Salle would ride that momentum the rest of the way through, coming out of the gym at Coatesville High School with a 49-43 win.
Walls, who added four late free throws to help seal the victory, finished with a game-high 22 points.
“I really did not want to lose this game, at all,” he said. “I had to just forget about the mishap, the slip out there, just had to move on and continue with the game.”
Before the slip, Wells had played an instrumental part in a fourth-quarter comeback. The Explorers trailed the Falcons by as many as nine after a six-minute scoreless span between the third and fourth quarters, and the deficit was seven with 5:35 to play.
Then the 5-foot-11 guard knocked down 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, sandwiched around a Cedar Crest bucket, turning what had seemed like a big deficit into a 32-29 game with 4:18 left on the clock.
“He’s confident, that’s what it is,” junior forward David Krmpotich said of his classmate. “We were struggling early on and he knew that we needed to get back in the game, and he hits those two threes, that was amazing. Those were big-time shots.”
Dempsey credited Walls, known as a drive-and-kick guard, with really working on his 3-point shot.
“I’ve been talking to him about using his left foot as his pivot foot, stepping into shots,” he said. “He had a great shoot around today before we left and he’s playing confidently.
“I told him as soon as overtime started, ‘you hit those two big 3s, you deserve a slip.’ He was upset, came back and played his rear end off in overtime.”
Krmpotich certainly played his part as well, hitting the game-tying layup on a feed from another classmate, junior guard Shawn Witherspoon, with 1:46 left on the clock. The 6-foot-7 forward finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, but almost wasn’t out there at the end of the game.
With over three minutes remaining, Krmpotich went up to block a Cedar Crest shot and came down on a player’s foot, turning his left ankle. He tried to briefly play through the pain before heading to the bench, but would return just before his game-tying bucket.
“I can still feel it right now,” he said afterwards, “but yeah I was alright. I could play.”
Witherspoon and sophomore Chuck Champion finished with six points apiece, while Sean Greenberg and Dan Corr each contributed three points; Corr’s game on a 3-pointer in overtime that turned a one-point deficit into that two-point lead before Walls’ 3-point play.
La Salle advances into the quarterfinal round on Saturday, where they’ll face off against Central League powerhouse Lower Merion. The Aces knocked off Catholic League regular-season champions Roman Catholic, so the Explorers know what they’re up against.
La Salle last made it this far into the tournament in 2011, where they eventually lost to Chester in the quarterfinal round. And this is a program that graduated seven seniors from a squad that didn’t even qualify for the state tournament.
“It’s amazing, because last year we didn’t even come close to this,” Walls said. “Now we’re one of a couple of teams to do this in school history, so it’s pretty great.”
Last year, Walls, Krmpotich and Witherspoon combined for 51 points. This year, they’ve scored well over 800 combined, and the team has surpassed all expectations.
“I think the hope for this season was just to finish above .500, finish in the top six in the league and really just rebuild for next year,” Krmpotich said. “But we’ve really displayed what we could do this year and I think for next year, it really shows what we can do.”