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BLOG: March Madness

La Salle v Kansas State
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Bill Campbell, known to all Philadelphiasports fans as “The Dean,”...
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By Bill Campbell

LaSalle 63-Kansas State 61

It was almost a perfect day for the “City Six” and it certainly was a memorable one for Philadelphia college basketball fans.

La Salle held off Number Four seed, Kansas State, 63-61, last Thursday and the Explorers’ season continued for at least another round to face Ole Miss. Against Kansas State, the team sprinted early but held on for the win in the final minutes before over 18,000 at the Spirit Center. The Explorers led by as many as 19 points, holding an 18 point margin at halftime. But they were forced to hold on for dear life in the second half. The first half produced arguably LaSalle’s best basketball of the season, allowing John Giannini’s players to survive after shooting 63% against Boise State in the first round. Against Kansas State (27-8), they were 18 for 31 from the field and 6 for 11 from the 3-point perimeter. Even when KS rallied with their wild fans behind them, LaSalle’s Jerrell Wright stepped up to stem the purple tide. The 6’8” sophomore scored 21 points, hitting all 6 field goal attempts, running up 8 big rebounds and going 9 for 10 at the foul line. This was a surprise because Wright had been 1 for 5 against Boise State and entered the game against Kansas State no better than 60% at the foul line. But he scored LaSalle’s last 9 points when the game was on the line and produced a 62-61 lead by making 2 very big foul shots with 30 seconds left. “Throughout the game, we tried to keep calm,” said Explorer guard, Sam Mills, who scored 10 points and made the defensive play of the game. “We knew they would take their punch and we would have to deal with it.” He was right. In the second half, LaSalle weathered one body blow after another from the Kansas State team but managed to hang on with courage and maturity. Ramon Galloway, normally the LaSalle kingpin, said, “We always have had confidence in Jerrell Wright. We have always known that he can play this way. It’s not really shocking. We’re just glad that he stepped up big time at the right time.” Wright is a graduate of Dallas Tech and Coach Giannini said of him, “I told him to just stare at the rim and think of one word, ‘in’. And he shot the ball great.” He sure did and so did the Explorers. They’ll give Ole Miss a run for its money.
Temple 76-NC State 72

Temple star, Khalif Wyatt, jammed his thumb during the second half of this game and had to leave for a few minutes. The training staff wrapped the thumb and Wright returned to the court. But the question hung in the air: Could Coach Fran Dunphy’s Owls survive without Wyatt? “We’ve got some real experienced guys this year and they are hungry to prove themselves on the national level,” said Wyatt who finished with a game-high total of 31 points despite that sore thumb. “We have a bit of a chip on our shoulders this year. We want to somehow prove that we belong here and that we can make a real run at this thing.” In the process, Wyatt added to his reputation and his team-mates stepped up too.

At 6’4”, senior Wyatt has starred all year but he seems to produce even more on the biggest stages. In Dayton, Ohio, against NC State, he ran up a 31 point total which tied him for the fifth highest ever scored by an Owl in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the most since Mark Macon scored 31 in 1991. Wyatt also holds the Temple record for the most single season free throws with 200. The great Hal Lear set the previous record of 189 during the 1955-56 season. Against NC State, Wyatt scored 12 of Temple’s final 17 points, the last 2 coming on 2 foul shots with 2 seconds left, jammed thumb and all. He made 12 of 14 foul shots overall. Thanks in great part to Wyatt’s contributions, the Owls moved on to face Indiana on Sunday.

Jake O’Brien started in place of Anthony Lee, who was recovering from concussion symptoms, and scored 13 of his 18 points in the first half. The 6’9” forward was 7 for 9 from the field, including 4 of 6 on 3-pointers. Lee played sparingly but finished with 3 points, 2 rebounds and a blocked shot in his 8 minutes. The Owls dominated the first half and led 44-26 with 18 minutes to play. NC State did get to within 2 at 74-72 thanks to both some great shooting of their own (70%) and Temple’s missing field goal after field goal in the final 4:40. “You knew it was going to come down to the end,” said Dunphy, “ We had a nice lead but NC State is too powerful a team for us down the stretch.” The Owls knew they would be battling to the final buzzer and, fortunately, they were able to hold on.

Although this was Temple’s 6th straight tournament appearance, the win over NC State was only Temple’s second NCAA victory under Fran Dunphy. It gave the coach, who spent a lot of years at Penn, an overall 3-14 career record in the NCAA tournament. Most of those numbers relate back to his years in the Ivy League with the Quakers so it’s nice to see him rack up some wins with the Owls. It’s also interesting to note that Neil D. Theobald worked for 20 years at the University of Indiana before becoming President of Temple University in January. He was on hand in Dayton, all Temple all the time. But the Owls moved on to face his old home team on Sunday.

North Carolina 78–Villanova 71

Villanova, after falling 20 points down to North Carolina, allowed the Roy Williams team to rain 3-pointers on them from all over the Spirit Center in Kansas City and saw their story come to an end. The Wildcats pretty much beat themselves, at least on defense. The 8th-seeded Tar Heels knocked down 11 3-pointers, 5 by P.J. Hairston, in this second round battle and knocked Villanova out of the tournament. The Wildcats ended their season 20-14, victimized again by their lack of an adequate 3-point defense. North Carolina shot 52% (11 for 21), the 10th time this season that Villanova has allowed 10 or more baskets from beyond the arc. The finish was precisely what most people had expected and gave Roy Williams his 700th career victory.
The Tar Heels got off to a scorching start, picking up five 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes. At one point, they led 32-12. Villanova gets credit for coming all the way back and taking the lead at 44-42 and 45-44 with 13 minutes left on a free throw by Jay Vaughan Pinkston, the ‘Cats leading scorer with 20 points. But tough 3-point baskets by Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston put Carolina back on top to stay. Villanova never led again though they made a last ditch effort trailing 67-59, scoring 7 straight points and drawing to within 1 when Pinkston converted both ends of a one-on-one with 2:14 remaining. Marcus Paice answered from the arc for 3, starting a 9-2 run that firmly decided the game for the Tar Heels. The Wildcats’ Mouphtaeo Yarou scored 17 points for and grabbed 8 rebounds in his last game. Coach Jay Wright said post-game, “We don’t have great quickness on this team, which is why we struggled defending the Three. They do a great job making extra passes and screening for their team.” He added, “We worked really hard to present against the Three.” It wasn’t enough. Wright gets most of his team back next year but not Yarou and he’ll miss him. Yarou said, “I learned a lot playing at Villanova. I met a lot of great people and Coach Wright helped me a lot through ups and downs. But this one was a downer although North Carolina deserved to win.” On to next year.

Florida Gulf Coast 78–Georgetown 68

One of the big first round shockers in the NCAA tournament was Florida Gulf Coast’s ten-point defeat of Georgetown. How many saw that coming? In fact, how many knew anything about Florida Gulf Coast at all? The school didn’t even exist 15 years ago and wasn’t a member of Division One until 2007. Last year, the school wasn’t even eligible for the NCAA tournament. You have to wonder about the genius who scheduled this game involving Georgetown, a longtime Philadelphia villain, only to see FGCU play before its largest crowd ever and run the Hoyas out of the building.
FGCU was seeded 15, Georgetown 2 before the opening tip-off. The Floridians played at an incredible pace, coached by a guy named Andy Enfield who said following the victory, “We don’t care who we play. We’ll play anybody, anytime, any place.” That gritty attitude showed. At one point the game was tied at 31 only to see FGCU go on a 21 to 2 spree with zeal, guts and precision demonstrated by a bunch of kids who were completely unknown on the national stage. FGCU was led by a guard named Brett Conner, who finished with 12 points and 10 assists, making a behind-the-back pass that led to a thunder dunk by someone named Chase Fieler. The crowd was electrified. I think we may someday hear about Conner and Fieler again – and we’ll probably be hearing more about Florida Gulf Coast down the line. They face San Diego State next.

Darin Ruf and the Phillies

Darin Ruf swings a right-handed bat that the Phillies have been thinking about for months. That’s because he hit 38 home runs at Double A Reading last season. He played first base there. The Phils hoped he could play left field because they have a guy at first base named Ryan Howard. Ruf hit a walk-off home run one day last week to beat the Atlanta Braves and he answered reporters’ questions for a few minutes after the game. Then he was summoned to Manager Charlie Manuel’s office where GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. told him he was being sent down to the minor league complex. This really came as no surprise. Ruf spent the first few weeks of spring training scuffling at bat and in the field, pressing to prove himself. There will be no “Babe Ruth” at Citizen’s Bank Park when the team opens in April, at least not this season. Manuel says he will be surprised if Ruf doesn’t land there for a long stay someday — but not yet.

Roy Halladay

The Phillies’ main concern, however, is Roy Halladay. He has been struggling through spring training and the strength of his arm is questionable. All of the Phillies brass was on hand last week, including club president, David Montgomery, to see that kind of shape the right-hander’s arm is in as the worrisome spring season winds down. Led by general manager, Ruben Amaro, Jr., they landed at the Clearwater Complex, standing on a balcony above the field as Halladay pitched and tried to rebound from a perplexing month in the sun. Top pitching prospect, Jesse Biddle, stuck around to watch and pitching coach, Rich Dubee, sat directly behind home plate charting pitches while prospect John Pettibone manned the radar gun. It was a real workout for Halladay and hardly anyone was smiling when it ended. He threw 81 pitches against a Triple A squad from his old team, the Toronto Blue Jays, the most he’s thrown all spring and worked 4 innings. He retired only 7 of the 18 batters he faced, clocking fastballs in the 87 to 89 mph area and hitting 90 once with only 1 strike-out. Not the most encouraging news for this storied pitcher. The home opener against the Kansas City Royals is on April 5th and Cole Hamels will be pitching. We’re left to wonder when and if Halladay will be doing the same.

At This Writing…

Temple fell to Indiana on Sunday afternoon but LaSalle moved on to the Sweet Sixteen after a thriller against Mississippi, 76-74, thanks to a Jerome Garland shot that hit the net with 2.5 seconds to spare and set the city off on a celebratory spree. The Explorers are off to California where they’ll face another surprise team, Wichita State, on Thursday night. The game doesn’t start till the late hours our time but I know I’ll be watching.