The four-line message, scrawled in blue on the white grease board in the La Salle Explorers locker room, said it all:
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
Say what? La Salle and Ole Miss, No. 13 and No. 12 seeds, respectively, indeed will be playing Sunday at the Sprint Center, hoping to reach next week’s Sweet 16 after pulling off monumental upsets Friday.
That’s the beauty and the curse of the NCAA Tournament, where a No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast can upset a No. 2 Georgetown on Friday, sharing the spotlight with a No. 14 Harvard that had upset a No. 3 New Mexico on Thursday night.
“There’s always one every year,” said La Salle guard Tyrone Garland. “It’s a great feeling. We’re probably going to be the talk of the world today.”
While the upset of No 5 Wisconsin by Ole Miss, winner of the Southeastern Conference tournament, might not have been earth-shaking, who expected La Salle to beat No. 4 Kansas State in front of 18,301 mostly purple-clad fans at the Sprint Center less than 48 hours after the Explorers had to play Boise State in a play-in game?
And doing it despite making just three field goals in the second half?
The Explorers imagined it. Though La Salle, 23-9, hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992 and hadn’t won a tournament game since 1990, they thought they had benefited from their 80-71 win over Boise State.
“It was an advantage for us, because we already got those first-game jitters out of the way,” said guard Tyreek Duren. “They were coming into the game stiff. They hadn’t played anyone since their conference tournament.
“We knew we were in their hometown. We knew it was going to be loud. We just tried not to let things get out of hand. When they went on that second-half run (tying the game after trailing by as many as 19 late in the first half), we tried to weather that, and we did a good job of it.”
La Salle, a school of 4,516 undergraduates, plays its home games in 3,400-seat Gola Arena — named for All-American Tom Gola, who led the Explorers to the 1954 NCAA championship at Municipal Auditorium. The Explorers had played in front of more than 10,000 just four times all season — at Xavier, at Temple, in the Atlantic-10 Conference tournament and at Dayton against Boise State.
But don’t tell them they’re not a big-time program.
Teams from the Atlantic-10 — La Salle with two wins, and Butler, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth and Temple — are 6-0 so far in the NCAA Tournament.
“The reason you see these scores (in the NCAA Tournament) is everyone takes basketball seriously,” said La Salle coach John Giannini, who is in his ninth season. “People have made great commitments. You look across the country, whether it’s salaries, budgets, facilities, (players) want to be here where we are right now, and are willing to invest to do that.
“I’m telling you, everyone is good. If you took a lot of the teams in the NIT, in our league … Dayton could be here and win two games in the NCAA Tournament. … Xavier could certainly do that. There are good teams all over the place, not just in the NCAA tournament.”
So when La Salle finished its season by losing at St. Louis and to Butler in their first game in the Atlantic 10 tournament, Giannini told his team they were battle-tested for the NCAA Tournament.
“I told them they were far better prepared for this tournament than they realized,” Giannini said. “ ‘You just lost to two potential Final Four teams. You’re not going to play against anyone in (the NCAA) Tournament that’s tougher than Saint Louis or Butler.’
“The Atlantic 10 is 6-0. I can’t help but grandstand a little bit. I don’t understand why these great leagues are (breaking up). What a great league.”
Big 12 teams Kansas State and Oklahoma State already have lost in the NCAA Tournament, and Wildcats coach Bruce Weber knows the Explorers are no typical Cinderella.
“If you watch La Salle, that was a hard 13 to play, to be honest,” Weber said. “Somewhere along the line, they probably had inconsistencies which led them to that spot. We can’t complain. We had the advantage of playing on a Friday, playing in Kansas City.
“Whoever you play, you’ve got to play. It’s a special time of year. You hope you play your best at the end. I guess it’s the excitement of the tournament. That’s why you have it. That’s why you play the games.”
To reach Randy Covitz, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org