PHILADELPHIA– On December 8, La Salle took a beating at the hands of Penn by a final score of 83-65 at Tom Gola Arena, their largest margin of defeat so far this season.
It was then time for the Explorers to play in a four-team tournament known as the Battle at the Boardwalk in Atlantic City where their first opponent was Alabama A&M, who was also winless at the time. They manhandled them 80-57. After that, they faced Towson and beat them 57-51 to claim the championship. They were 2-10 with a healthy squad for the first time all season.
“After that Atlantic City tournament I had hope,” La Salle head coach Ashley Howard said. “Because we played well, we had won two games in a row, we had our full team and we were just a different team at that point,
After the tournament, the Explorers began their Atlantic 10 slate where they started off with a win at UMass followed by four straight losses and then four straight wins and then a loss to George Mason.
For what it was worth, the Explorers five conference wins came at the hands of teams in the bottom four of the conference and they haven’t proved that they could beat teams in the top half of the conference, until now.
Duquesne came into Wednesday’s matchup as the 5 seed in the A10 standings but don’t tell La Salle senior guard Pookie Powell that. His lay-in with 4.6 seconds to go gave La Salle the victory by a final score of 73-72.
“As I was dribbling down, I already knew Coach was going to call spread for me,” Powell said. “Usually I settle for a stepback jumper or a three but I knew I could get to the basket so I just went to the basket hard and finished the play.”
Powell’s lay-in was just two of his game-high 25 points.
At the 8:00 mark of the second half, La Salle was up comfortably 61-51, but Duquesne came storming back to take the lead from the Explorers at the 3:23 mark.
Nonetheless, the Explorers held on.
“I told our guys last night, they’re dangerous when they get down,” Howard said. “I watched them battle back against Rhode Island, they were down the entire game, 19 points, and then they battled back and stole that game, they almost got us.”
Sophomore guard David Beatty chipped in with 15 points of his own, and junior guard Isiah Deas scored all 13 of his points in the second half.
But while he only scored nine points, freshman forward Ed Croswell reeled in 16 rebounds, with 10 of them coming on the offensive glass, which surely helped with La Salle’s 16 second chance points.
“He’s always had a nose for the ball,” Howard said. “He was a relentless rebounder in High School and rebounding is one of those traits that translates at every level so he’s just showing us that he can rebound with the big boys and today we needed every last one of those rebounds that he got today to give us a shot to win it.”
The win improves the Explorers to 8-15 and 6-5 in A10 play, placing them in the 7 seed in the A10, something that is all of a sudden important for La Salle.
“I’ve looked at [the standings] a lot more after we started winning,” Howard said. “You want to know where you stand with the conference tournament approaching in a little over a month and we’re playing for something now, we want to make sure that we know what’s at stake every game,”
Up next for the Explorers are two straight road games. They face Saint Louis on Saturday and then St. Bonaventure on the 20th.
“Now we’re at the point of the season where we’re playing the top half of the league,” Howard said. “So our guys have to bring the maximum effort every game now because the significance of every game with the seeding and so on is huge.”
Would it be a stretch to say that the Explorers are playing the best basketball of their season so far? Absolutely not. But, Howard made it abundantly clear that there is plenty of room to improve.
“We’ve played our best basketball the last two weeks that we’ve played all season,” Howard said. “We can still get a lot better and I think the exciting thing about this team is that it’s our first season all together,”
“We’re going to always evaluate where we are and see where we can keep getting better.”