The star at the beginning of the game was definitely not Darien Nelson-Henry. Although he was finding good positioning, he just couldn’t put the ball in the basket. With a little under 3 minutes left in the half, Nelson-Henry had only 4 points. But by the time 15 minutes were left in the second half, the Washington state native had 24 points.
After trading early baskets to begin the game Penn pulled ahead 10-9 going into the first media break. La Salle head coach John Giannini had to dig into his bench early and sub center Tony Washington into the game to match the size of Penn center Darien Nelson-Henry.
La Salle’s Cleon Roberts was the star of the first half with 14 points. Penn couldn’t find a way to slow him down as the former transfer was 5-6 from the field and 2-2 from three point range.
Penn’s Sam Jones got into foul trouble early and had trouble getting his game going. With only 2 points and 10 minutes of play, the Explorers did a good job of containing him in the first half.
The La Salle lead stretched to 10 in the first half and it looked like they would pull away with the win. Penn just couldn’t find the bottom of the basket and the La Salle offense was flowing well. After the 3 minute mark in the first half everything changed. Matt Howard hit a three and Nelson-Henry notched in 6 straight points to cut the La Salle lead to 3 points going into half.
Washington started the second half on the floor for the Explorers in place of forward Rohan Brown to continue to guard Nelson-Henry, but Washington’s 6-foot-10 frame did not make a difference in the eyes of the Penn senior.
Penn took the lead coming out of halftime 37-34, after a three from Jones and three point play from Nelson-Henry. Penn held the lead for the entirety of the second half, extending it to as large as 16 points. La Salle kept clawing, but could not find a way to regain the lead. Penn just wasn’t missing.
Part of the reason Penn began to pull away from the Explorers was Nelson-Henry’s hot stretch early on in the second half. Henry has scored 18 of his 31 points in the second half, as La Salle could not find a way to slow him down. He also was a dominant force on the rebounding end, completing the game with 14 rebounds.
Sam Jones also found his shot in the second half, finishing the game with 18 points on 6 of 8 shooting. Antonio Woods, who struggled in Saturday’s game against Washington, ended the game with 9 points and multiple big shots to extend the lead.
Go-to-scorer Jordan Price helped lead La Salle with 18 points while Roberts added a team high 20. However, this was not enough for the Explorers to come out on top as Penn scored 51 second half points.
-William Derry and Benjamin Simon
Photo: Benjamin Simon-The Empire
The La Salle Explorers have won all three of their games to begin the 2015-2016 season. Jordan Price has been the clear star for the Explorers thus far, averaging 27 points per game heading into Monday's matchup against Lafayette, where he scored 33 points while shooting 79% from the field. Aiding Price’s consistent offensive effort this season has been sophomore guard Johnnie Shuler. The young man from Washington D.C. has shown the toughness and clutch playmaking ability that the Explorers have needed in this early stretch of the season. Against Towson, Shuler displayed both of these attributes when he played all 40 minutes of the game and came up with two game winning moments to seal the victory; a last minute steal and transition layup to take the lead, along with making three of his final four free throws.
However, despite his success, one problem with Shuler has been his decision making as a point guard. In the first game against Towson, he did a good job by not committing any turnovers in the win. But in the second game against Rider, Shuler was more aggressive with his desire to initiate offense. Although he notched four assists in a thirteen point win for the Explorers, Shuler also committed five turnovers, followed by a three-turnover performance in the win Monday night game against Lafayette.
In many sets of La Salle’s offense so far, the Explorers run with two combo guards on the floor together, Shuler and Amar Stukes. However, during important offensive possessions, it is Jordan Price initiating the offense. Monday night, when the Explorers were holding a second-half lead, they often ran offense out of a 1-4 set, with Jordan Price starting the play at the top of the arc and Shuler as the strong-side second option if Price did not find a lane to the basket. Because the Explorers were running conservative sets like this, Johnnie Shuler was not put into a position where he had to force plays and commit numerous turnovers. When Shuler was committing turnovers, it was because he was forcing the issue offensively and was trying to do too much. When Jordan Price is not initiating the offense, head coach Dr. Giannini may be wise to have Stukes initiate the dribble-drive more often and keep Shuler as the strong-side off-ball option. Stukes may be better served as the ball-handler when he and Shuler are both on the floor. Stukes can display his qualities as a distributer (5.3 assists per game and 0.7 turnovers) while Shuler, who is the better 3 point shooter between the two, is better fit off the ball.
On the other hand, a likeable part of Johnnie Shuler’s game this season has been his consistent toughness. The Explorer’s website provides the following quote from head coach Dr. John Giannini regarding Shuler, “Johnnie was recruited to be a major contributor in his sophomore year and he is well prepared to do so. He has fearless and competitive qualities to go with his high skill set so that he can be a very good player for us.” Shuler stands a mere 5-11, but that hasn't stopped him from corralling six rebounds a game in this young season, highlighted by an eight-rebound performance against Rider. If the Explorers continue to implement these small, four-guard lineups this season, shorter players like Shuler will be expected to crash the boards, especially on defense, to hold opponents to one-shot possessions.
The most noticeable improvement for Shuler this season compared to last year has been at the free throw line. In 2014-2015, Shuler shot 59% on his free throws. This season, in his first three games, Shuler has shot 90% at the line. A ball handler who is confident in his free throws is a valuable player late in halves, especially in bonus situations where any foul leads to a chance for points at the free throw line. With all of the rule changes college basketball instituted this season, we are seeing many fouls called. Due to this, making free throws will be ever more important for the Explorers to win close games.
With the return of big man Tony Washington, Shuler should have another low-post weapon in the Explorer’s offensive arsenal. This will help create more open lanes for the guards and forwards to attack. As La Salle heads across town to face Penn on Wednesday night, it will be interesting to watch Shuler and how he becomes more comfortable in his decision making as the Explorer’s point guard. If he continues to efficiently supplement the Explorer’s offensive attack, play solid defense, and show up in big time moments, the Explorers will have a great chance to continue their early season success.
La Salle’s season opening two-point win over Towson was a statement about how resilient and tough this year’s Explorers team will play. Despite beginning the game with a rotation of seven scholarship players, La Salle never backed down. Even when two starters, Amar Stukes and Rohan Brown, fouled out with more than eight minutes left in the game, La Salle was able to edge out Towson in the waning moments of the game to start their season with a big win. La Salle head coach John Giannini called the win, “One of the most gritty, hard-nose wins I’ve had in my career dating back to 1989.”
Jordan Price and Johnnie Shuler were La Salle’s players of the game. Price showed off his natural inclination to “get buckets” with 27 points on 50% 3-point shooting and 82% from the free throw line along with only one turnover. Explorer fans have to be excited for Price’s potential to produce solid, efficient games like this.
For a 5-foot-11 player, Shuler was able to notch 5 rebounds, didn’t turn the ball over at all, and was able to only pick up two personal fouls in the entire 40 minutes of the game. Additionally, with the match tied, Shuler’s savvy defensive play earned him a steal and a transition bucket with under a minute in the game. It was as clutch of a play as they come. Also impressive was his ability to ice the game by hitting three of his final four free throws. Those high-pressure free throws are often difficult for even the best of scorers, but Shuler was able to get the job done. The entire Explorer team did a great job at the free-throw line against Towson, making 25 of their 30 free throws attempts.
The debut of freshman forward Yevgen Sakhniuk was also impressive. He played only 15 minutes of the contest but scored 11 points and went a perfect 5-5 from the field. Sakhniuk showed great discipline late in the game when he already garnered four personal fouls and had to play the final eight minutes without picking up another one. If Sakhniuk can stay out of foul trouble, his interior-scoring prowess will get him many frontcourt minutes for the Explorers this season.
For the La Salle Explorers, this win means that they can overcome the kind of adversities that occur over the course of a season and find a way to get a tough win. Injuries to Tony Washington and Karl Harris forced coach G to go with a seven-man rotation. And when Stukes and Brown both fouled out, only five scholarship players were available for Coach G. Despite the adversity they faced, the Explorers played a solid game, turning the ball over only eight times and shooting 84% on free throws. What kept the game close for Towson was their advantage on the boards, getting 45 total rebounds compared to La Salle’s 32. In his postgame media address, coach G said, “We will be a dramatically better team in the near future.” When projected starting forward Tony Washington recovers and is back on the court for coach G, this size disadvantage for La Salle will be dissipated and we should expect the Explorers to become more competent with their work on the boards.
The Explorers next game is in Philadelphia against the Rider Broncos on Tuesday, November 17. La Salle will look build upon a win that some are calling, “One of the greatest wins in La Salle’s history.” If La Salle continues to show the kind of toughness, resiliency, and timely play making, they can prove themselves to be a real contender in the Atlantic 10 conference.
PhotoL Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
La Salle finished last season with a 17-16 record. Despite their average record, the team made it into the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, where they lost to Davidson (the regular season A-10 champions) on a buzzer-beater. This was their first winning season since their deep run into March Madness back in the 2012-13 season. Coach Giannini will have to find a way to replace the frontcourt tandem of forward Jerrell Wright and center Steve Zack, but it won’t be easy. He has started to replace the tandem with transfers B.J. Johnson and Demetrius Henry, but they will be unable to play this season because of NCAA transfer rules. Until then, forwards Rohan Brown, Yevgen Sakhniuk, and Tony Washington must pick up the slack. Coach Giannini will have a young and undersized frontcourt but will have a strong backcourt with redshirt junior Jordan Price, who averaged 17.2 ppg last season, redshirt sophomore Amar Stukes, and redshirt junior Cleon Roberts.
at Villanova, December 13th, 2015
The Explorers will have to bring their best against Jay Wright’s Wildcats. Projected as the 8th best team in the nation by Dick Vitale’s preseason top 40, La Salle will have to deal with Villanova’s great backcourt depth.
vs Miami, December 22nd, 2015
After finishing last season (25-13, 10-8 ACC) with an NIT championship berth and big wins against Duke, Syracuse, and Florida, the Hurricanes will give the Explorers a great challenge.
vs VCU, February 3rd, 2016
Coach Giannini will remind his team of last year’s overtime victory over VCU and look to build off of that, as the Explorers will try to beat a top in-conference foe once again.
Projected Starting Lineup and Statistics
G: Amar Stukes (8 PPG, 4 APG)
G: Jordan Price (17 PPG, 4 RPG)
G: Cleon Roberts (11 PPG, 4 RPG)
F: Rohan Brown (5 PPG, 5 RPG)
F/C: Tony Washington (6 PPG, 8 RPG)
6th: Johnnie Shuler (5 PPG, 2 APG)
7th: Yevgen Sakhniuk (7 PPG, 4 RPG)
Amar Stukes returns after a solid freshman campaign. In 22 minutes of work per game, Stukes was able to produce an average of 5 points, 1 assist, and 1 steal. The rising redshirt sophomore is a stellar defender and is able to cover some of the best guards in the A-10. Coach Giannini encouraged him to be more confident in his offensive game last season, and hopefully he can put his coach's words to work. Jordan Price is a no brainer at the two. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he has a body built for the NBA. Although he averaged 17 points per game, it was often matched by inconsistent shooting and turnovers. However, he’s only a redshirt junior, and could easily improve his shot selection with a little offensive help from Stukes and guard Cleon Roberts.
Roberts is an intriguing prospect. In his first year with La Salle, the former transfer averaged 8.8 points per game with an offensive rating of about 100. Most of his offensive stats are below average (11.8 PER, .496 TS%, .7 OBPM), yet his production was pretty solid. This shows how much room he has to improve, even though he had such a solid sophomore campaign. He is long and showed flashes of real greatness (7 games with 15 or more points). The Explorers will desperately need him to step up on more consistent basis, something that fans didn’t see last season.
The frontcourt however has loads of inexperience for the Explorers. Tony Washington played in 13 games last season, and Rohan Brown wasn’t much better with less than 10 minutes per game. Yevgen Sakhniuk joins the team after having to sit out for an “NCAA-mandated year in residence.” It is safe to say he’s a little rusty. But the good news is, all three have spent some time learning under former La Salle big men, Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright. Washington also brings NBA level length that is sure to disturb defenders around the rim. Brown is a undersized banger, but plays hard and has been in the La Salle system for some time, as he is a fifth year senior.
With a shallow bench, Johnnie Shuler and Yevgen Sakhniuk will have to play a fair amount of minutes. Shuler, a small, tough, and steady guard should see an increase of minutes from last season, but will be pushed by freshman Karl Harris. As a long 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, Sakhniuk has proved himself with the Ukrainian national team and was even good enough to earn a spot in the FIBA Europe All-Star game in 2013. He is a wildcard, but could see some time in the starting lineup with a lack of experience at the big man spots. 6-foot-5 freshman Karl Harris will also compete for minutes and will likely emerge as a large part of the offense in the distant future. But for now, he still needs to learn the ropes. A larger role may come later in the season if need be.
With only 9 scholarship players, the Explorers do not have high expectations riding on their back. But they do have some upside that could prove worthy. Price is one of the A-10’s best players. Coach Giannini calls him an extremely hard worker so therefore there should be no reason he won’t continue to improve. He should keep scoring and leading the Explorers. Stukes and Roberts are the members that should be expected to take on much larger roles. The La Salle College High School graduate, Stukes, will have to step up on the offensive end. Last year, he was a defensive stopper, but coach Giannini will need him to have more confidence. Roberts, on the hand, will gladly take shots. It is safe to expect him to continue shooting on a consistent basis, but hopefully he can start to be more efficient. He had only 8 games in which he shot 50% or higher from the field. That just cannot cut it on a team that will need to replace 44% of their scoring from last season with the losses of Khalid Lewis, Jerrell Wright, Steve Zack, and D.J. Peterson.
In a deep A-10, the Explorers are going to have trouble responding each and every night to the competition they are faced with. An unexpected force will have to step up and progress their game in gigantic way. Amar Stukes, Cleon Roberts, or Tony Washington look like the prime candidates to take on bigger roles and surprise some teams in the NCAA. But if someone on the team cannot help out Price, the Explorers are looking at a long season.
Last year the Explorers were 8-10 in conference play. During that span, they were 6-3 at Tom Gola Arena and 2-7 away from there home arena. La Salle must find a way to win more conference games on the road if they want to compete for the A-10 crown. Without the improvement, the Explorers will have a hard time digging their way out of the depths of the A-10, come tournament time.
-Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Photo courtesy of CBS Philly