Just the second of the so-called First Four teams to make it to the Sweet 16, the La Salle Explorers seek their fourth win of the 2013 NCAA Tournament when they take the floor against the Wichita State Shockers in the West Regional Semifinals at Staples Center on Thursday night.
La Salle, which joined VCU's 2011 squad as the only other program to start from such humble beginnings in the tourney and then make it this far, would certainly be the top story among the remaining teams in the event if not for the fact that Florida Gulf Coast is the first No. 15 seed ever to make it this far. The 13th seed, the Explorers toppled Boise State in the first round of the tournament on March 20 by a score of 80-71 in Dayton before moving on to Kansas City.
The site of La Salle's first and only national title back in 1954 when the Explorers dismissed Bradley (92-76), Kansas City was again good to La Salle as the team first defeated Kansas State by a basket in the second round, 63-61, and then picked up another two-point victory versus Ole Miss on Sunday in order to advance.
As for the ninth-seeded Shockers, they like La Salle earned an at-large bid for the tourney and have also scored a pair of upsets in order to move to an even 10-10 in this event over the years. The trip to the round of 16 began with an impressive 73-55 romp over Pittsburgh, and then continued with a 76-70 victory versus top-seeded and top-ranked Gonzaga which by some estimations was not so much of an upset.
The Shockers, who played in the shadow of Creighton for much of the regular season in the Missouri Valley Conference yet are still standing after the Bluejays fell to Duke over the weekend in the third round, won the only previous meeting between these two programs back in 2003 during the Paradise Jam, albeit by a narrow 74-71 final.
The winner of this contest heads to the Elite Eight where it will contend against the survivor of the Arizona/Ohio State matchup for the right to advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Operating with a four-guard offense, La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini may have put his team at a disadvantage on the glass, but in the end his squad still had more than enough fight in them to score the two-point win against the Rebels, thanks to what has been dubbed the 'Southwest Philly floater'.
Tyrone Garland, who stands just 6-1, swept his way from the left side of the lane over to the right and scooped in what became the game-winning shot beyond the reach of Ole Miss center Reginald Buckner who stands 6-9 and thus one of the most important baskets in La Salle history was given life, and a name.
For Garland, who shot just 1-of-8 from the floor in the win against Kansas State, the basket was the highlight of his 17-point effort, trailing only Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren who registered 24 and 19 points, respectively. The Explorers lost the rebounding battle, 40-30, but managed to shut down the Rebels beyond the arc as Ole Miss made good on only 4-of-19 attempts.
On a team that is generating 72.5 ppg this season, Galloway heads the list of individual scorers with his 17.4 ppg, racking up 92 3-pointers along the way while also finding his teammates for 124 assists. Duren checks in with 14.4 ppg and another 107 dishes which helps to take some of the load off Galloway. Garland (13.0 ppg) and Jerrell Wright (10.7 ppg) also lend a hand on offense, the latter responsible for a team-best 6.8 rpg.
Wichita State's defense went right after the Bulldogs last Saturday night, holding Gonzaga to a mere nine made field goals in the first half and 3-of-12 shooting beyond the arc in the frame. While the Zags were able to bounce back in the second half and even take a 49-41 lead with the aid of a 12-0 run, but WSU then closed the meeting with a 35-21 scoring advantage to send the Bulldogs packing.
Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early both dropped in 16 points for the Shockers, the latter clearing seven boards and the former six rebounds to go with four assists. Fred VanVleet came off the bench to add 13 points and three dishes in his 20 minutes of action to make up for Malcolm Armstead who shot just 2-of-9 from the floor and tallied eight points.
Even though he has been coming off the bench of late, Early is still the leading scorer for the Shockers with his 13.9 ppg, discovering a large portion of his points at the free-throw line where he is close to 80 percent accurate. Carl Hall checks in with 12.6 ppg and is first on the glass with almost seven rebounds per game, which explains his reluctance to from shooting 3-point range, while Armstead (10.6 ppg) is actually the most accomplished perimeter shooter for the program with 57 conversions, not to mention being tops with 143 assists at the same time.