By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Two rows of blue sat cloistered in a conference room with jumbled, rumbling nerves on La Salle’s campus Sunday night as the schools were being read … and read … and read … and read.
The La Salle players tried burning off heavy anxiety by hammering away with their thumbs texting everyone they knew—fidgeting, doing anything to harness the tension coursing through them—coursing through the entire small room filled with TV cameras, interloping reporters holding notepads and cell phones sporadically poking up to capture the exact moment.
The tension was broken by an eruption that took 21 years to arrive, when La Salle’s name was called, putting the Explorers in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992, opening the tournament in a first-round game against Boise State as the No. 13 seed in the West bracket.
The Explorers will play Boise State at Dayton Arena on Wednesday, March 20, at 9:10 PM.
Villanova also made it to the Big Dance as a No. 9 seed in the South region, taking on No. 8 seed North Carolina, and Temple has also been invited. The Owls are a No. 9 seed in the East region, where they’ll play No. 8 seed North Carolina State (see related story).
But the invite meant a little more to La Salle.
The Explorers have not been to the ”Big Dance” in over two decades, and the players were very aware of the history. It’s why Explorers’ star junior guard Tyreek Duren kept talking at the widescreen TV, “Come on Gumbel,’ as if the CBS Selection Sunday studio host Greg Gumbel would hear him and blurt out “La Salle.”
Coach John Giannini resurrected the program, with Duren and Ramon Galloway, the Explorers’ leading scorer averaging 17 points a game, as the foundation.
“When they got down toward the end of the bracket, it got a little scary there, there were a lot of people texting me saying we’re going to get in,” said Duren, arguably the best college player in the city who averages 15 points a game and makes the Explorers go.
“I was nervous. I just wanted to hear our name called. I didn’t care if it was for a play-in game or not. It was very emotional when it finally happened. The first thing I did was look at Ramon, and then looked at ‘G’ [Giannini] because this program has been on such a long road since I got here. To me, this means everything.
“We’ve been through so much, since freshman year. We had a lot of people transfer and we had a lot of drama on the team. I give props up to ‘G,’ because he got the program where it should be. The program did a whole 360 from my freshman year until now.”
To a player, that seemed to be a central theme. Players were leaving the conference room, tears flowing down their cheeks. Giannini himself was a bit of a mess, waiting for La Salle’s name to be called. He looked intently at the TV, chomped on celery, occasionally leaned forward and pressed two fingers on his parched lips.
La Salle’s selection meant a little more to Tyrone Garland, too. The former Bartram High star has been an energizer off the bench for the Explorers this season, but more importantly, he seems to have finally found a home at La Salle. Garland originally committed to Virginia Tech. It wasn’t a comfortable fit, so he decided to come back home and transfer to La Salle.
It’s taken two years for Garland to show what he could do at the college level.
“Looking back, it was the right decision to come home and helping them get to this point is like the highest point of my life,” Garland said. “This is like a championship to me, because I’ve never won one. It’s a big-time feeling. It was a little emotional. I wanted to cry a little bit. I just didn’t want to be the one to cry first. It’s a great feeling for the school, and the program, but it’s a great feeling for Coach Giannini, because he had worked for this for so long.”
Giannini wasn’t about to take any credit for where the program is—and to finally reach a goal in playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have good people on this team—we have no distractions, we have good chemistry, our kids are wonderful people,” Giannini said. “It’s not about me, it’s about them, these kids and their dedication. It doesn’t surprise that they immediately think of others. I’m honored to be their coach. Our goal and our focus has been getting to the tournament. They know that’s been the focus all along. We’re here.”