Jeff McDevitt (@JeffMcDev)
Back on February 16, the La Salle Explorers won a nail-biter against St. Joe’s Prep to advance to the Catholic League semis. A loss would have ended their season.
Then, on February 28, La Salle was down by two points to Central with just over a minute to go and on the verge of not even qualifying for the PIAA AAAA state tournament.
Now, after four wins in the state tournament, the Explorers are headed to Hershey for a chance to win the whole darn thing, after a 61-55 victory over Chester in the AAAA semifinals at Coatesville High.
It’s the first time La Salle College High School has been this far in the state tournament, and what a run it’s been. To think: a wrong bounce one way or the other, and it might not have even happened.
“I was just talking to one of our assistant coaches that we were coming into the season with such little experience. To get through the Catholic League with only four losses we felt fortunate. Our goal was to get a home playoff game in the Catholic League; truthfully, we could have never predicted this success. Our league is so tough if you cough wrong game up during the regular season, you might not even get a chance to play in states,” La Salle head coach Joe Dempsey said.
“It’s amazing to have this opportunity. I wouldn’t have thought we could have made it this far after that near-loss to Central. It just shows how hard our area is. It really just proves how tough it can be,” David Krmpotich said.
Behind 17 points from junior guard Shawn Witherspoon and 19 points and seven rebounds from junior forward Krmpotich, the Explorers neutralized Chester’s in-your-face style and sliced- and-diced the Clippers on defense en route to the upset.
Witherspoon and his backcourt mate Najee Walls handled the Clippers full-court press with few hiccups and the poise they’ve shown throughout this state playoff run. A season of going up against the best guards in the land in the Catholic League helped them prepare for a game like this.
“They were really scrappy on defense, but I have to give it to me and ‘Spoon, we really pride ourselves on taking care of the ball. We remained calm, and that’s really our motto here at La Salle,” Walls, who had nine points on the night, said.
“I think what you saw was the benefit of playing against Neumann and Carroll and Roman twice. There is absolutely no way to simulate that, and you can only hope that the kids listen to you. Najee and Shawn did a tremendous job. Our big guys handled the ball in the open floor very well as well,” Dempsey said.
Early on, it seemed Chester’s tactics were working, as La Salle didn’t even get a shot off in the first 3:45 of the game, turning the ball over three times. Dempsey took a timeout, settled the troops, and an early 4-0 deficit turned into 11-10 at the end of the first quarter.
“We didn’t look alert and when that happens against Chester it can be 40-0 real quick,” Dempsey said.
The second quarter saw both teams trade blows, and enter the half deadlocked in a 23-23- tie. Chester’s Mahir Johnson, who scored a game-high 26 including Chester’s last 16, hit a pretty jumper to beat the horn and it seemed all the momentum rested with the orange and black.
Foul trouble hurt both teams all night, with the Clippers frontcourt falling victim to the whistles more than the Explorers’. Starting big Gabe Adesina fouled out with 7:03 to go, and Stony Brook-singee Tyrell Sturdivant picked up his second midway through the second and third early in the third, keeping him on the bench more often than head coach Larry Yarbray would want.
The game plan on the defensive end was to limit Sturdivant and the rest of Chester’s bigs who had the serious size advantage on the Explorers, and it worked as Sturdivant finished with a quiet 10 points and six rebounds.
“Stopping the big men was a huge focus of ours. Keeping them off the glass and limiting them offensively,” Krmpotich said.
Krmpotich as well, picked up his third in the third quarter, but Jalen Herdsman, Shane Stark and Sean Greenberg helped the Explorers clean the glass and keep the Clippers to one shot. Dedicating themselves to rebounding allowed the Explorers to get stops , and all five guys in blue and gold were finding a body when a Chester shot went up.
“We have to play defense and we have to clean the glass. If you give Chester second chances, you’re in for a long, long night,” Dempsey said.
A 7-0 run late in the third quarter was the turning point where Dempsey’s squad pull away, and got the late arriving student section (bus went to Unionville) get into the game as they could begin to taste the chocolate bars. Their guards drove with confidence, and the lead allowed La Salle to run clock in the fourth quarter and seal the upset, which shocked basketball fans all over the area.
“It’s shocking to people because you know how we graduated seven seniors and two All-Catholics last year so it’s going to be a big thing for our school to be the first team to make it up there,” Walls said.
With the win, the Explorers move on to the Giant Center where they’ll face New Castle, who downed Abington, Saturday night at 8 PM. After the game, Dempsey stressed the importance of every guy on his roster, and their selflessness during this improbable state tournament run.
“At this time of year it’s about character, and we have kids who have character. I can’t say enough about them. We have kids who haven’t seen game action in six or seven weeks, and they are in the gym busting their butt, pushing our starters, pushing our varsity guys and trying to get better. Never a cross-eye, never a mopey guy, they are cheering for each other, and as a high school teacher and educator that is the most gratifying thing,” Dempsey said.
“I told the guys in the locker room ‘grab it now’ because you never if you’ll have this opportunity again.”
But they do know how close they were to never having it in the first place.