Monday, March 25, 2013

There’s No Mirage: La Salle Dances Through Tourney

The cutest, most lovable team is dancing to the Sweet 16 certainly eager to stun crazed fans of its astonishing, jaw-dropping tournament run, looking to upset No. 9 Wichita State and create a memory of a journey no one imagined. After enduring a week of skepticism about not being the heavy-favored team to advance past No. 4 Kansas State and beat No. 12 Ole Miss 76-74 on Sunday, the Explorers generated as much attention as George Mason and Davidson a few years ago.

It’s a Cinderella story — presumably the cunning team from the Atlantic 10 Conference, the coolest underdog other than Florida Gulf Coast. Yet as much as La Salle’s miracle is ignored from Tyrone Garland hitting a floating layup in traffic with 2.5 seconds remaining to send the Explorers to the next round, La Salle poses a threat in the NCAA tournament. The striking, euphoric tale of a little school from Philadelphia elevating to contenders has become a national power with its epic, mind-blowing stories — the school’s deepest run since 1955.

The insults of La Salle’s incredible, historical victories are not a surprise when the school is not recognized as a powerhouse from the Atlantic 10 Conference and, with all the disrespect, the Explorers are unnoticed and undiscovered. Just like that, after two decades of gloom and murkiness, La Salle sets out on a Cinderella run. With La Salle portrayed to be perhaps the scariest and toughest out of the tournament, beating and sending high-seeded teams packing, the Explorers have a scintillating backcourt with the likes of Garland and Ramon Galloway. The darlings of March, forgotten or not, have morphed into contenders in the month of Madness. The cuddly creatures of March, undervalued or not, will take the floor with high hopes and elevate the program to the ranks of perennial schools quickly to emerge in a tournament of agony and ecstasy.

This is immensely a team that comprise of more than just sleepers or bracket killers but believers and winners, which specifies just how well equipped and crafty the Explorers really are in a tourney where they can make one of the deepest runs among Cinderella teams. For those who follow college basketball religiously every spring, it has been another magical, compelling March Madness, as it is normally with a few unexpected teams that sometimes creep into the Final Four. This year, it happens to be La Salle, a Philly team some have actually fallen in love with after surviving Boise State in the First Four, the Wildcats and then after surprising America in the Round of 32, ending what could have been a treasured Cinderella tale for Mississippi as well.

The love of an underdog captivates American, maybe even American pop culture, enduring the beauty of underdogs and upsets to become really intrigued by the compelling stunners that leave fans speechless and shocked. This is a March Madness made of chills and thrills, and maybe even an instant classic. By night’s end, La Salle had celebrated something worthwhile, something that meant a lot to the school and those players who aren’t intimidated and believes they can win it all, dance with glee, cut down the nets and hold the trophy.

The accomplishments of the little guy are something America has become fascinated with, and incredibly, the underdogs contend against the big guys while having a “take on the world” mentality. The underdogs, amazingly, gives us a story and millions gather at fraternity houses, workplaces or bars to root for the little folks, witnessing the emergence of the precious underdogs — David trumping Goliath. That’s what America likes to see, falling in love with La Salle quickly, and now that brackets are destroyed all over the nation, why not root for the Explorers?

And after a big win, hope floated in the minds of the little people and they are now dreaming of the ultimate prize. We like to believe that this tourney has a way of hypnotizing our minds and that underdogs can be decided on the basis of unquestioned talent and sheer domination, which defines La Salle, an underemphasized school that has been belittled for struggling in the second half of the prior two games — although the Explorers somehow survived.

There’s much pleasure in watching Garland, the Virginia Tech transfer who was raised in Philly. The shot he made was a well-timed floater, a game-winning bucket in a thrilling third-round contest in the West Region that sent La Salle to the Sweet 16. Trailing by five with 4:18, La Salle was able to take advantage of Ole Miss’ abysmal free-throw shooting. The hot shooting from Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, who scored 40 points in two games, wasn’t enough to grind it out. With time winding down, La Salle tied the score at 74 with 31 seconds remaining. The ball went to La Salle on the next possession following Ole Miss’ shot-clock violation but Henderson said he was fouled on that play. The game ended with La Salle’s Tyreek Duren dribbling the ball up the floor, burning as much clock, dribbling to his left and dishing off to Garland. The 6-foot-1 guard drove into the paint and delivered a right-handed floater.

GAME OVER!

What we are about to witness is sweeter in the round of 16 teams, maybe the best you could ever have, with La Salle believing it can beat anybody it plays in the upcoming weeks. For those who don’t believe, the Explorers are real, not bothered by the insults of being called a Cinderella team when the Explorers feel they deserve to be regarded as top contenders. If things turn out right for La Salle, a school that was guided by a Philly basketball legend Tom Gola and won a national title in 1954, it would be a dream come true and a run you don’t get often in this tournament.

The Explorers are still not the overwhelming favorites to even reach the Final Four but La Salle coach, John Giannini, insisted that his team was more than just a “Cinderella,” a tag annexed to his Explorers. Legitimately, Giannini stimulated and strengthened his own players. Giannini, who earned his PhD in sports psychology, has never been to the NCAA tournament, let alone the Sweet 16 in his nine years at the school.

The most La Salle ever settled for was the NIT — National Inferior Tournament — and wouldn’t ever advance further than the first round. Emboldened by his words and brilliant coaching, his players amazingly played with a purpose and has not been denied of unthinkability of a run that signifies the joy of the moment. There will be discussion about La Salle winning its play-in game, flashing back to ancient history of a storied program from decades and decades ago.

A year from now, we will remember La Salle’s incredible joy ride, no matter how long it lasts.