Although Texas Southern defeated the La Salle Explorers yesterday, 77-76, on a buzzer-beater by guard Dulani Robinson at Tom Gola Arena, junior Amar Stukes finally found his groove. The guard left it all on the hardwood against the Tigers. He tracked down loose balls, scrapped for rebounds, and even played fantastic post defense on Texas Southern’s 7-footer, Marvin Jones. Stukes was a large part of why La Salle even stayed in the game, especially in the first half.
After getting off to a slow start in the first half, which led to Texas Southern's largest lead of the game (13 points), La Salle head coach John Giannini called a thirty-second timeout and went to the bench to find a solution.
Though junior Demetrius Henry and senior Cleon Roberts entered the game in place of junior B.J. Johnson and senior Jordan Price after the break, La Salle still struggled. While Johnson and Price would later re-enter the game and help the Explorers make a comeback, it was Stukes who came off the bench early on and took on the challenge of guarding Texas Southern’s leading scorer Zach Lofton.
Stukes held Lofton to 3 first half points, which was huge. While Stukes thrived, the rest of his teammates struggled.
“I thought the first half we had some good players play atrocious defense,” said Giannini at his post-game press conference. “They shot 55 percent, outrebounded us and we couldn't stop them without fouling.”
The La Salle College high school grad’s play on the defensive end against Lofton throughout the first half allowed the Explorers to stay in the game despite their big deficit. Stukes, who played 35 minutes and tallied 8 points, 5 assists, and 2 steals against Delaware this past Tuesday, has gotten off to a solid start this year and coach Giannini said that his play at practice is a key factor in his performances thus far.
“He is by far our highest winner at practice,” said Giannini. “His team almost always wins. He defends, doesn’t turn the ball over, and gets his teammates involved.”
Stukes’ first half efforts earned him a start in the second half. He made the most out of the opportunity as he drained a three-pointer off a Pookie Powell assist within the first minute of the second half. Later, he found center Tony Washington on a drive to the basket for a layup.
After Johnson knocked down three consecutive free-throws to cut the lead to 2 for the Explorers, Stukes forced forward Lamont Walker to turnover the ball, which led to Roberts tying up the game with a layup on the other end to make it 46-46.
Roberts hit another clutch basket a little over minute later to give the Explorers a 51-48 advantage, drilling an electrifying three-pointer that brought the crowd of 2,622 people to their feet.
Before Stukes rested on the bench after playing for the first eleven minutes of the second half, Roberts continued his perfect shooting night (4-4 3PM, 6-6 FGM), hitting his third three-pointer, giving La Salle a 57-55 lead.
With Stukes on the sideline, Texas Southern’s Kevin Scott hit a three-pointer to give them a three-point lead, 62-59.
The Philly native gave La Salle the lead, 70-68, when he stole the ball from Robinson and received a pass from Powell for an easy layup. Stukes then fought for a loose rebound after Price missed a jumper, which resulted in a jump ball that favored the Explorers due to the possession arrow. The Explorers led 72-69 after Johnson hit two free throws. The Lower Merion graduate followed that up with a dunk to make it a 5-point lead.
Lofton, who finished the game with 13 points, kept attacking the basket for Texas Southern. He hit a contested layup to make it a three-point game. Then, Powell beat his man off the dribble and drove baseline to the basket but instead of laying it up, he attempted a dunk, which he missed. Last year’s SWAC Player of the Year Derrick Griffin got the rebound and found Lofton, who hit a jumper to pull the Tigers within 1-point.
“Pookie's missed dunk would have iced the game,” said Giannini. “If there's one play that's more upsetting, it's probably that because that was the game.”
With 8 seconds left in the contest, Powell hit both free throws giving La Salle a 3-point lead after being fouled by Lofton. Powell soon committed a foul of his own on Scott, who made 1 out of 2 free-throws with 6 seconds remaining.
The Tigers forced the inbound pass to go to Henry, who missed the first shot of a one-and-one, which prompted Robinson to grab the ball and sprint up the court, where he hit the game-winning shot for Texas Southern.
“It's a crushing loss,” said Giannini. “They did one more good thing than us and I'm just really disappointed.”
Despite La Salle's close loss, Stukes put in a strong defensive performance, which helped keep the Explorers in the game and should give him confidence moving forward. His defensive prowess has not gone unnoticed by coach Giannini.
“Defensively he's terrific and that’s half the game of basketball,” said Giannini.
Photo: Benjamin Simon/ Philly Empire
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