La Salle Explorers

La Salle, Penn learn a lot about itself after exhausting 2OT affair

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La Salle, Penn learn a lot about itself after exhausting 2OT affair

BOX SCORE

For all those in attendance at the Palestra, Monday’s game was a show. It was everything you’d want in a Big 5 game, really, with two rivals trading big shots and, as is the case in most city games, even bigger defensive stops through regulation and overtime and then another overtime.

But more than anything else, it was a test — a perfect early-season gauge on where both Penn and La Salle might stand for the rest of its non-league slates and into conference play.

And the Explorers, especially, felt like they passed it with flying colors after a 75-71 double-overtime victory over the host Quakers (see observations).

“Last year we wouldn’t have won this game,” La Salle star swingman B.J. Johnson said. “We probably would have lost by a lot.”

La Salle certainly dealt with its share of struggles during a 15-15 campaign last season, and even more the season before that when it went 9-22. The Explorers lost to the Quakers in each of those two seasons (after previously beating them eight straight times), and were victimized by Penn post players scoring over 30 on them in both contests.

The team’s growth could not have been more evident this season as it held Penn’s AJ Brodeur, who torched the Explorers for 35 last year, to only 12 points and zero field goal attempts after halftime.

When you combine that with the fact it held Penn to 33.8 percent shooting just two days after allowing only 40 points to Saint Peter’s, the early signs are in: La Salle has all the makings of being an excellent defensive team with the kind of grit head coach John Giannini craves.

“It’s a shame someone had to lose that game,” Giannini said. “Both teams left absolutely every ounce of energy and effort they had in their bodies out there in court. There are many things for us to be pleased about. First and foremost, we’re trying to be a good defensive team so we can win games when we don’t click offensively. We didn’t click offensively today and we still won. To hold Penn to 33 percent from the field is going to be quite an accomplishment when you look back on this season. I don’t think many people are going to do that.”

Penn certainly has enough offensive weapons to worry opposing coaches, with Brodeur and classmate Ryan Betley at the top of that list. Both sophomores played 46 minutes but combined to take a modest 19 shots with Betley, an absolute sniper from distance, connecting on only two three-pointers.

For that, the credit goes to La Salle senior Amar Stukes, a Philly native who made the most of his last of many appearances at the Palestra by bottling up Betley and then erupting for eight points in the second overtime to seal the win.

“It was inspirational to watch,” Giannini said. “As a coach, to see one of our guys play with that kind of effort on both ends brings tremendous pride. I couldn’t be me more proud of him. It’s so great to see him, as he gets older, assert his will on the game the way he’s doing this year.”

For his part, Stukes said he tried to be more aggressive offensively in the second overtime after Johnson fouled out. And he admitted he tried to “stay attached” to Betley every time he caught the ball, crediting Giannini with how much defense has been a priority after so many struggles in that department last season.

“Since the offseason, he’s been stressing how we have to be one of the best defensive teams in the Atlantic 10 if we’re gonna be good,” Stukes said. “Our defense is the main focus this year.”

Penn head coach Steve Donahue noticed La Salle’s stark defensive improvement from last year. And he was also pleased with his own team’s defense and grittiness while similarly bemoaning the lack of offensive execution, particularly late in the game when it had chances to make game-winning shots.

“In a lot of ways, I thought it was a classic Big 5 game,” Donahue said. “It was fun to be a part of. Both teams know each other well. In some ways, I thought we played well enough to win. In other ways, we kind of got what we deserved.”

While it’s clear that Donahue has assembled more talent in his third year in charge, he’s still trying to find the right blend of players for his rotation while figuring out a way to space the floor with two big men in the post after going with one last year.

One of those big men, Max Rothschild, took 19 shots — while La Salle doubled Brodeur — and finished with 14 points. And even after a tough loss, he’s excited to see how the team progresses after taking an experienced, athletic La Salle team to two overtimes.

“That’s the kind of stuff we love to do as players — we love to compete,” Rothschild said. “The more basketball we can play, the better. I think it was a great test for us. It was a great test to see how we can stay poised through these types of games.”

Added Giannini of his own team after the exhausting Big 5 affair: “Our guys showed great character and resiliency, and I know I was inspired by coaching them.”

La Salle names Ashley Howard as new basketball coach

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Photo: La Salle University

La Salle names Ashley Howard as new basketball coach

La Salle didn't have to venture outside of the Big 5 to find its new basketball coach.

The university Sunday announced Villanova top assistant Ashley Howard has been hired as the Explorers' next head coach. Howard will be formally introduced in a press conference Monday at 11 a.m. 

"It's an honor and a privilege to be named the head coach at La Salle University," Howard said in a press release from the university. "I chose to coach at La Salle early in my career because of its incredible tradition in the Big 5, its dedication to athletic excellence and its commitment to its student-athletes.  To have the opportunity to return to campus and lead this storied basketball program — a program defined by greats such as Gola, Durrett, Brooks, Simmons and Butler — is one for which I'm deeply appreciative."

Howard, who attended Monsignor Bonner High and graduated from Drexel, began his coaching career in 2004 at La Salle as an assistant to Dr. John Giannini.

"As a former assistant coach here, we know firsthand that Ashley Howard is an exceptional coaching talent who has a deep understanding of both La Salle's basketball tradition and its important student-focused mission," La Salle director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation Bill Bradshaw said. "This is a university that holds character, integrity and commitment to that mission in the highest esteem, and our men's basketball coach has the unique responsibility of reflecting that on and off the court."

After four years with the Explorers, Howard returned to his alma mater in 2008 as an assistant coach for the Dragons until 2012, when he moved over to Xavier as an assistant. 

Following one season with Xavier, Howard returned to Philadelphia as an assistant on Jay Wright's staff, where he experienced two national championships.

"Ashley is an outstanding coach who made a great impact on our program and University in his five years with us," Wright said. "His passion for mentoring young men and teaching skill has been invaluable in our team's development. La Salle has made a terrific selection and all of us at Villanova are thrilled for Ashley, Ariana and Journey as they embark on this new phase of Ash's career."

Giannini's 14-year tenure with La Salle ended in late March when he and the university "mutually agreed to part ways."

Dr. John Giannini out after 14 years as La Salle's head coach

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Dr. John Giannini out after 14 years as La Salle's head coach

After 14 years as the head coach, Dr. John Giannini is out at La Salle.

The university and head coach "mutually agreed to part ways," the school said in a statement.

Giannini will be best remembered for leading the Explorers to the Sweet 16 in the 2012-13 Cinderella season. 

He compiled a record of 212-226 at La Salle.

"I am truly blessed to have the relationships, challenges, and achievements that come from 29 years of being a head coach. In my time, I have witnessed hundreds of coaching changes involving many terrific coaches and schools," Giannini said in a statement. "Today, (athletic director) Bill Bradshaw and I mutually agreed that La Salle University could benefit from a new voice in leading the program. It is difficult to admit this but I have been given every effort possible for success and I have received nothing but support and encouragement from Bill and President (Colleen) Hanycz. 

"Greater things may be accomplished for this storied program and great university with the approach of a new coach. I am forever grateful, especially to my loyal staff and dedicated student-athletes. I look forward to my next challenge and La Salle's future success."