By AARON BRACY
As always, the Palestra delivered.
Saturday’s Big 5 duel between La Salle and Saint Joseph’s lacked a memorable finish, but didn’t lack for excitement.
The old gym was rocking from well before tip and 8,722 made it sound like heaven. The gym has its share of inconveniences for fans, including parking difficulties and long lines for food and restrooms, but there’s just nothing quite like a Big 5 game there.
“Any game here is going to be exciting but with St. Joe’s and La Salle, it was times five today, times ten,” said La Salle guard Tyreek Duren, who dropped a career-high 29 points on the Hawks in the Explorers’ 76-64 victory. “The whole atmosphere is loud every play. You heard people screaming, it wasn’t quiet the whole game—even during halftime. Any game at the Palestra is going to be like that.”
It was great to see La Salle’s students out in such force. It has been a long downturn for the proud program on Olney Avenue and I don’t remember seeing more enthusiasm from La Salle’s undergraduates in a Palestra game.
The Explorers players certainly fed off their fans’ energy.
“It was just a huge game, we all love to play in the Palestra,” said La Salle’s Ramon Galloway, who set a career-high with 12 assists to go with 16 points. “The top players in the history have played here. I think we were more amped up and ready to play.
“I was explaining to the team that this game feels different from any other game we played all year. This game is a great energy—you have half St. Joe’s and half La Salle. Every play, there’s people yelling. I know Tyreek was into it, I was into it. I loved it.”
The Explorers will wrap up the Big 5 season on Thursday when they travel to Temple for a showdown with the Owls at 7 p.m. Win and La Salle earns its first Big 5 title with the full round-robin since 1989-90.
La Salle is looking forward to the opportunity.
“Winning the Big 5 is huge,” Galloway said. “I can’t explain it. This is my second year playing in the Big 5. I know this year it’s huge—for me, because it’s my last year and I don’t have another chance to win the Big 5. My teammates, we want to win, we want to get into the record books. We want to do good. We want to be a great team, we don’t just want to settle for good.”
Here’s a look around the City 6:
DREXEL (10-15, 6-7 CAA)
The Dragons are in seventh place in the Colonial Athletic Association, five games back of first-place Northeastern with five conference games remaining. With a pair of losses to Northeastern this season, it means the Dragons – who were picked to win the CAA in the preseason – can’t finish atop the league. And, really, that matters little. All that matters is what happens in Richmond in the conference tournament, March 9-11.
Guard Damion Lee got back to his scoring ways in Thursday’s loss to George Mason, netting 16 points after tallying 16 points in the three previous games combined.
The Dragons return to the court at 7 p.m. Monday when they host Hofstra at the DAC. Amazingly, Drexel is just 3-8 at home this season.
LA SALLE (18-6, 8-3 A-10)
The Explorers are tied for fourth in the Atlantic 10 but just a game back of VCU for first. La Salle has a realistic shot at the league’s regular-season title. Of course, the Explorers would trade that for the conference’s tourney title and/or an NCAA bid.
La Salle goes for its first outright Big 5 title with the full round-robin since 1989-90 when the Explorers make the short trip down Broad Street to Temple on Thursday for a highly anticipated matchup with the Owls.
Tyreek Duren went off in Saturday’s win over St. Joe’s, netting a career-high 29 points while making 5 of 6 3-pointers. The talented point guard has steadily improved his long-range shooting: 32.1 percent as a freshman, 39.2 percent as a sophomore and 41.1 percent this season as a junior.
Probably because he’s not a big-time scorer, averaging 14.5 points per game, Duren isn’t mentioned among the league’s elite players. But he should be. He didn’t appear on any of the preseason all-league teams, but it would be hard for me to believe there are 15 players an A-10 coach would rather have than Duren.
PENN (6-18, 3-4 Ivy)
The Quakers’ win over Dartmouth on Saturday night put them just about in the middle of the pack in the Ivy, in fifth place and 3 ½ games behind Harvard. That’s not bad, considering the Quakers had lost 10 of 11 games entering February Ivy play.
Coach Jerome Allen is known to harp about the team’s defensive shortcomings, but scoring has been a bigger problem for these Quakers. Penn is among the worst teams in the country in scoring per possession, averaging 0.92 points per possession to rank 310 of 345 Division I schools.
SAINT JOSEPH’S (14-10, 5-6 A-10)
Saturday’s loss to La Salle was the Hawks’ third in four games, putting St. Joe’s in a tenuous position in the Atlantic 10 standings. The preseason favored Hawks are tied for 10th, but just one game ahead of Dayton and St. Bonaventure for the final spot in the league’s conference tournament.
St. Joe’s, with losses to both the Flyers and Bonnies, loses a tiebreaker with those schools and will need to stay ahead of them to ensure a berth in the A-10 tourney in Brooklyn.
A bright spot for the Hawks of late has been the play of big man Halil Kanacevic. He had 16 points in 25 strong minutes in Saturday’s loss to La Salle at the Palestra. Since returning from Montenegro, where he attended his uncle’s funeral, Kancevic has averaged 12.1 points, 7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 blocks in just 26.5 minutes.
TEMPLE (17-6, 6-5 A-10)
The Owls bounced back nicely from Thursday’s stunning loss to Duquesne with Saturday’s road win at UMass. Still, those home losses to Canisius, St. Bonaventure and the Dukes probably will keep the Owls out of NCAA at-large consideration.
Coach Fran Dunphy has found consistent minutes in his rotation of late for Dalton Pepper. The Pennsbury product who transferred from West Virginia has averaged 17.3 minutes in his last four games, well above his season average of 11.8. He has scored 8 points per game in the last four to up his season scoring mark to 3.1 points per contest.
VILLANOVA (16-10, 7-6 Big East)
After getting dusted at Cincinnati on Tuesday, Villanova bounced back in beautiful fashion with Saturday’s impressive road win at UConn. Ryan Arcidiacono and James Bell connected on a half-court alley-oop that made the cut at ESPN.
More importantly, Arcidiacono dropped 25 points on the Huskies, hitting all four of his 3-pointers. The freshman from Langhorne is hot from the arc, making 10 of his last 13 3-pointers.
The Wildcats return to the court Monday for a late-night tip, hosting Rutgers at 9 at the Pavilion.
-Philly RPI rankings (as of Feb. 17): La Salle 34, Temple 50, Villanova 57, St. Joe’s 79, Drexel 199, Penn 289.
Aaron Bracy’s City 6 Rankings (Through games Feb. 17):
1. La Salle
4. St. Joe’s
-Rankings chatter: This week’s rankings were the easiest of the season. La Salle holds on to the top spot with a pair of wins, including Saturday’s Big 5 victory over St. Joe’s. With Temple’s loss to Duquesne and Villanova’s win at UConn, those school flip places. Everything else stays the same, though Penn is gaining ground on Drexel.