Despite late scare, La Salle tops South Alabama to move to 3-0

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

B.J. Johnson in last spring’s Atlantic 10 tournament
Shown here in last spring’s Atlantic 10 tournament, B.J. Johnson is once again leading the way for the Explorers this season.

La Salle 81, South Alabama 73 – Box Score

Coming off a thrilling double-overtime victory over Big 5 rival Penn Monday night, I’m sure Explorers fans wouldn’t have minded a less stress-inducing outing Thursday night against the South Alabama fans. In the first half, it looks like that was in the offing. La Salle jumped out to a 10-0 run to start the game and kept piling on, taking a 20-point advantage into the halftime locker room.

Entering play leading his team in both scoring and rebounding, redshirt senior B.J. Johnson continued to show why he’s regarded as one of the top players in both the Big 5 and the Atlantic 10 conference. He paced all players in both categories with 30 points and 11 rebounds, in an offensive performance reminiscent of his career-high 35 points against Florida Gulf Coast last season. Johnson was everywhere for La Salle in the first half, knocking down open threes, draining face-up mid-range jumpers over Jaguars defenders, and aggressively attacking the offensive glass to pick up some hard-earned buckets on the interior.

For a long stretch of the first half, Johnson was single-handedly out-scoring South Alabama. Although the Jaguars manages to eventually clear that modest hurdle (27 team point at the half compared to a whopping 22 for Johnson), it still looked like the Explorers were going to coast to victory.

The second half was a different story, however. South Alabama downsized to a five-out perimeter lineup and started bombing away from three. South Alabama’s leading scorer Jordan Andrews, held to just 2 points in the first half, caught fire, hitting 4 threes after halftime on his way to a team-high 20 points. In all, the Jaguars canned 9 of their 17 attempts from behind the arc in the second half, forcing the Explorers to abandon their center tandem of Tony Washington and Miles Brookins and play with the 6’7″ Johnson as the tallest player on the floor.

After the game, La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini admitted going small is not the ideal way he would like his team to play:

“I’d rather have Tony or Miles out there. We’re more comfortable. We can do more things offensively, using our big guys as a screener.”

In a flash, a 14-0 South Alabama run cut the La Salle lead all the way down to 7, an advantage that would later be trimmed to as little as 5 points. Fortunately for the Explorers, the large lead provided enough of a cushion that some key plays from Johnson and sophomore guard Saul Phiri were enough to still pull out the victory. Giannini had high praise for the pair in the post-game press conference:

“The two guys I’m with, B.J. and Saul, played with phenomenal effort. I thought B.J. really willed us to that win with some huge offensive rebounds.”

Phiri, coming off a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double against Penn, pulled the trick again with 14 points and 10 rebounds versus the Jaguars. Standing just 6’4″, Phiri showed a willingness to mix it up inside and the aggressiveness to come away with any 50-50 ball in his vicinity. Asked whether he expected Phiri to be a factor on the boards coming into the season, Coach Giannini responded:

“Yeah, he’s a tough kid. Anything that has to do with toughness, it doesn’t surprise me if Saul does it well.”

With Johnson and Phiri lifting a heavy load, the Explorers were able to stem the tide of the furious Jaguars rally, finally icing the game with an Amar Stukes three inside the final minute to bring us to the 81-73 final score.

The Explorers sit at a perfect 3-0 on the season. While obviously that’s as much as any team could hope for, they haven’t faced the highest class of competition thus far. That will change in a hurry on Saturday, when La Salle faces a Northwestern team ranked 20th in the country as part of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Connecticut. They’ll need to play two strong halves to hang around with the Wildcats, but walking away from the Tom Gola Arena Thursday night, Explorers fans were happy that one quality half of play was enough.

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