PHILADELPHIA (AP) — During its surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen last year, La Salle pulled out several games in the final minute.
Those types of wins have been much tougher to come by this season, a big reason the Explorers are going to have a hard time returning to the NCAA tournament.
Jordair Jett scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half, including the game-winning basket with 4 seconds left, and No. 13 Saint Louis extended its school-record winning streak to 16 games with a 65-63 victory over La Salle on Saturday.
“I have no problem with our effort,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “I have no problem with any individual. I just have a problem that, whether it’s Saint Louis, VCU or Manhattan, they willed a way to find one more play. That’s on all of us collectively.”
Jerrell Wright matched his career high with 21 points for La Salle (12-11, 4-5 Atlantic 10), which has lost five of six. Steve Zack finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Tyreek Duren added 14 points for the Explorers.
Two weeks ago, La Salle was handed another tough loss by a league powerhouse at home, blowing a late lead against VCU before falling in two overtimes. It was the second double-overtime home defeat of the season for the Explorers, who lost in similar fashion to Manhattan in their 2013-14 opener.
“I’ve done this so long and I’m still shocked at how infinitesimally small the difference between winning and losing is,” Giannini said. “One play, Manhattan. One play, VCU. One play, Saint Louis. One play. All of a sudden, you have three more Top 100 wins and all of a sudden you have two Top 25 wins and all of a sudden you’re 15-8 and 6-3 in one of the best leagues in the country.”
Dwayne Evans added 14 points to help the Billikens (22-9, 9-0 Atlantic 10) improve to 9-0 on the road — the best undefeated road record in the nation.
After Duren tied the game at 63 with a driving layup with 33 seconds left, the Billikens held for one shot and isolated Jett at the top of the key. Deceptively quick at 215 pounds, Jett dribbled by his man and hit a tough layup in traffic.
La Salle’s Tyrone Garland missed the potential game-winner from halfcourt at the buzzer.
“If he doesn’t have a career in the NBA, I think he could in the NFL, if his 40 time is good enough,” Giannini said of Jett. “And I’m not joking about that. His strength and his mental toughness and his physicality are at the highest level you can find on a basketball court.”
Trying to beat their first ranked opponent of the season, the Explorers had the home crowd thinking about an upset when Duren drilled a 3-pointer with 1:15 left to tie the game at 61, capping a 7-0 run.
Jett responded by slicing through the entire La Salle defense and finishing a drive to put the Billikens ahead 63-61 with under a minute left.
Last season around this time, the Explorers defeated two straight Top 25 teams in Butler and VCU, which helped them earn the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1992.
But Jett thwarted the Explorers’ upset bid this time.
With La Salle leading 43-41 early in the second half, Jett scored 15 of the Billikens’ next 18 points to push Saint Louis to a 59-54 lead with 5:38 left.
“What we really needed was one stop,” Duren said. “We couldn’t really get a stop down the stretch.”
Mainly, the Explorers couldn’t stop Jett, who shot 9 for 14 from the field and 7 for 9 at the free throw line in his highest-scoring game since he poured in 31 points in a 59-58 win over Rhode Island on Jan. 7.
One of five key seniors on the squad, Jett is a big reason why Saint Louis is off to the best start in school history and hasn’t lost since Dec. 1.
“Our guys do a great job keeping things in perspective,” coach Jim Crews said. “We’ve done extremely well and won a lot of games, but they don’t get caught up in that stuff.”
After trailing by as many as nine in the first half, La Salle took its first lead with 17:19 remaining on a basket by Wright, who scored the Explorers’ first seven points of the second half. Less than a minute later, La Salle extended its lead to 40-37 after Garland fed Wright for a thunderous dunk.
But after matching his career high in scoring with 11:22 remaining, Wright didn’t score the rest of the way as the Billikens began to clamp down inside on him.
“They put a huge human being on him and never left him,” Giannini said. “We’d like to get him the ball every time, but Saint Louis had different plans.”
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