By: Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
PHILADELPHIA –For years, Ashley Howard stood next to Jay Wright when looking out onto the court at the Palestra. This time, he was across from his former mentor and friend on the opposing sideline.
It was Howard’s first taste of being at the helm of a Big 5 program inside the Cathedral of College Basketball for Howard, the La Salle Explorers head coach. After spending the last five seasons on Wright’s staff helping Villanova claim two national championships in three seasons, Howard was preparing to take on a man who had taught him so much about the game but his focus remained solely on his team, not the one on the other sideline he had a lot of success with.
“To be honest, it’s just been me trying to figure out what we do need to do to keep getting better then I found out we have three guys hurt,” Howard said. “So I’m going into this game thinking, ‘Ok, we’re playing Villanova with three guys hurt. What are we going to do to keep getting better?’”
Without leading scorer Pookie Powell, the Explorers nailed a season-high 12 three-pointers but couldn’t close things out at the end as No. 23 Villanova came away with an 85-78 win. The Wildcats were led by seniors Eric Paschall who scored 17 of his 27 points in the second half alone and Phil Booth, who chipped in 19 points including three three-pointers.
Powell (18.3 ppg) was out due to a lower body injury but La Salle (0-8) came out firing in the first half. They drilled nine shots from behind the arc including four from Isiah Deas, who finished with 15 points for the game. Deas nailed treys on back-to-back possessions then freshman Jack Clark, who hit three from long distance, hit his first career three-pointer to give the Explorers a 32-20 lead at the 5:30 mark of the opening half.
Howard hopes his team’s play in that first half has the makings of propelling his team forward.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” Howard said. “I thought they battled and we played together. I felt like we took a step in the right direction in terms of building our team and where we’re trying to go.”
Wright, whose team also knocked down nine three-pointers in the first 20 minutes, didn’t downplay the significance of what playing in a Big 5 game can do for a team like La Salle, which was looking for its first win.
“I love it every time we come here,” said Wright, who is 8-0 in his career against former members of his coaching staff. “It’s hectic and we try to prepare our team for that. I think some of our young guys weren’t totally ready for this early. They got a good taste of it today but to have two seniors who have been in these games is probably the difference in the game.”
Paschall and Booth started to turn things around for Villanova (6-2) toward the end of the first half. Booth knocked down a triple with 3:09 remaining before halftime and Paschall had a pair of buckets in the final 53 seconds to cut the deficit to 42-39 heading into the locker room.
The run continued into the second half as Paschall, the 6-foot-8 redshirt senior, scored the Wildcats’ first bucket after intermission. Later in the half, his two free throws at the 16:24 mark tied the game at 47-47. When looking at the scope of this game from afar, it was a Big 5 matchup, but for Wright, he admitted it was tough to not think about playing one of his former assistants.
“I never enjoy that to be honest,” Wright said. “We got the chance to see each other on Thursday morning and hang out a little bit. This is a good basketball team and they played a lot of young guys in this game. Those young guys were effective and those guys made us work for a lot. Ash has a good nucleus here.”
Villanova finally took the lead with 12:44 to play as sophomore point guard Collin Gillespie, who scored 13 of his 15 points, found Saddiq Bey in the corner for an and-1 trey to give them a 55-54 advantage. La Salle never led after that point.
Wright’s team began to pull away as Booth, who only had six points after halftime, made his presence felt on a two-handed dunk to give his team a 75-72 lead. Paschall’s slam two possessions later gave the Wildcats a six-point cushion.
While this isn’t the national title from a year ago, Booth stressed that this team is young and continuing to come together.
“We told them we can’t worry about that,” Booth said. “This is a completely different team. We can’t try to be last year’s team. We have to try to be the best team that this group can be.”
The Explorers kept things close as Traci Carter, who tallied 17 points and eight assists, found forward Miles Brookins inside for the finish to cut the lead to 79-76 with 1:06 remaining but that was as close as they would get. Wright credited the Explorers on their trapping defense and their shooting efficiency.
“It made our guys get the ball out of their hands and took us away from running ball screens,” Wright said. “They really executed well and got the ball to their people in isolation situations. They shot the ball fearlessly.”
Though he didn’t come away with a victory, Howard received a reaction from Wright following the game at midcourt that he had been given time and again over the last five seasons.
“He said, ‘I’m proud of you. Your guys really competed,’” Howard said.