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La Salle still hopes to sneak into NCAA tournament

The Explorers are looking more and more like a March Madness squad.Getty Images

Nothing will top the jubilation expressed by the La Salle Explorers two seasons ago, after being picked by the selection committee as an at-large bid to the Round of 68 before their miraculous run to the Sweet 16 in NCAA tournament. But this year’s team can’t help but think about sneaking into the tournament as well, this time as Conference champions.

After a slow start, the Explorers (15-11, 7-6) are suddenly finding their identity as a team and have jumped into a tie for sixth place in the Atlantic 10 Conference. They’re winners of five of their past seven games and were able to come out on top of a double-overtime thriller against twentieth-ranked VCU on the road just over a week ago. Despite their recent success, coach John Giannini isn’t ready to measure how good his team can be just yet.

“I’ll measure us at the end of the season,” Giannini said. “The past does not influence the future. [The past] is over. We can’t show up on Sunday at St. Louis and say, ‘we beat VCU, will you let us win?’ It does not work that way.”

If you were to measure their recent past, you’d see that one of the reasons the team has been playing so well lately is because of a scoring surge from guard Jordan Price. Price is averaging 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists over the past six games. He’s second in the league in scoring to St. Joes’ DeAndre Bembry at 17.6 points per game.

“He’s a player who needed to improve his conditioning and defense,” said Giannini on Price. “He needed to just work on the things that go into winning basketball games. The thing he’s never had to improve is his ability to score. … I love that we have him for two more years and that he just keeps getting better. He can do really special things for this team and for himself because of his attitude.”

Price, along with guard Cleon Roberts, were eligible to play for La Salle this season, after transferring to the team in 2013. As just sophomore’s, they’ve been a dangerous pairing from the outside. They combined for 32 points, including eight three-pointers, in Wednesday’s 87-72 win over Duquesne (8-16, 3-10). Senior Jerrell Wright, who was a part of La Salle’s tourney run in 2013, commented on how the two have fit in with the team’s identity this season.

“We accept everybody,” Wright said. “We knew that Cleon and Jordan came from different situations, but they’d be able to fit right in. We thought they’d be tremendous fits in the starting lineup. Going out there and playing this year, they’ve done a wonderful job.”

La Salle has just five more games left in the regular season, with two games against the second and third place teams in the Conference – Rhode Island (18-6, 10-3) and Dayton (19-5, 9-3) – remaining. They’ll have a chance to move up in the standings before the Conference tournament begins at the Barclay’s Center on March 11.

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