In last Saturday's 84-80 win over Florida Gulf Coast, juniors Tony Washington and Demetrius Henry combined for 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks. On paper, those numbers amount to a decent game.
But they had more than a decent game.
In the first half, FGCU managed just two points in the paint as Washington tightly guarded the combination of VCU transfer Antravious Simmons and UNLV transfer Demetris Morant. Henry played these same men when Washington came out of the game with 13 minutes left in the first half, and let up just 4 points in the paint. This wasn’t a small feat.
Coming out of high school, Simmons was ranked as the 25th best center in the country by ESPN.com and was offered scholarships from prime time schools including Alabama, Kansas State, Memphis, and Miami. He ended up signing to VCU and redshirting his freshman year so that he could gain 30 pounds. He transferred to FGCU in December of 2014 and has had success in the past against La Salle. Last year, he collected his first double-double with then-career bests of 17 points and 10 rebounds in a 9-point win.
Morant is quite the player as well. He was offered scholarships from USC, Arizona State, Memphis, UNLV, and San Diego State. He also redshirted his first year at UNLV and decided to transfer in August of 2014 and was immediately eligible to play.
His first year, he broke the record for the most blocks for an FGCU player against a Division-I opponent and the second-most in FGCU history. Even though he missed 12 games due to injury last year, he had the second best rebound percentage on the team, led the team in dunks with 22, scored his career high in points, with 12 against North Florida, and would’ve placed third in the Atlantic Sun Conference in blocks, if he had played enough games.
During Saturday's showdown, Morant played for 21 minutes and started the game at forward. He ended up only making one out of his seven field goals, with half of his points coming from free throws. In the first half, while being guarded by Washington, he missed two heavily contested layups. When he was guarded by Henry, he scored just 2 points and ended the game with 4 fouls.
Simmons, on the other hand, played for just eight minutes due to fouling out of the game in the last five minutes of the second half. He was also held to 0 points, 0 shot attempts, and 1 rebound. Washington and Henry’s defense ultimately smothered FGCU's players, holding them to a mere 10 points in the paint all game.
Morant and Simmons were completely shut down the entire afternoon. Coach John Giannini of the Explorers couldn't stop raving about Henry's performance.
“Demetrius’ [Henry] impact was phenomenal,” he said after the game. “One thing that the average spectator might not be aware of is, when a good guard is making threes, you have to guard him tight. Now when they come and set a pick and roll and you have to be hit by that screen, that big guy has to stop the guard and get back to his man before he can score. It’s really hard to do. Demetrius Henry must have done that 20 times today. Really big time defense.”
But this wasn’t just a one game phenomenon. In the last six games, the La Salle big men, including Ukraine native, Yevgen Sakhniuk, who didn’t play against FGCU, have held the opposition's 12 big men to a collective 91 points (15.1 PPG, as an entire frontcourt per team), 9 assists, and 15 offensive rebounds. When the Explorers played the Bucknell Bison, they were met with a huge test against forward Zach Thomas, who averaged 16.3 points per game coming into the contest. La Salle was able to hold him to 10 points, his lowest total of the year.
Another impressive defensive performance was against center Tim Kempton of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Thus far, the two-time Patriot League Player of the Year has averaged the most amount of points for a Lehigh player since 2013, putting up 22.8 points per game this year, which is 9th best in the nation. His scoring was cut to nearly half that against the Explorers when he scored a season low 12 points in addition to 4 turnovers.
Arguably the most prominent performance of the year for La Salle was against Rodney Williams of the Drexel Dragons. While averaging 17.1 points per game and compiling six games with more than 20 points, Williams has become a premier player in the City 6. However, against La Salle, he tied his season low in scoring with a meager 7 points.
Then, more recently, in a 98-96 win, the Explorers held Mercer's five bigs to just 16 points and 5 made shots in more than 100 combined minutes of play.
Saturday’s win showed how La Salle can play up to the competition. FGCU has posted four straight 20-win seasons and hasn’t finished lower than tied for second place in the Atlantic Sun Conference in each of those four seasons. La Salle is now 6-4 and looking to use this victory as fuel to win bigger and better games, especially behind their stellar frontcourt defenders.
Photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images North America
On Saturday afternoon the La Salle Explorers will be defending Tom Gola Arena against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Last year, the teams met in Fort Myers, FL and FGCU got the edge against an undermanned La Salle squad. This year, with La Salle’s improvements of talent and the game being played in Philly, La Salle has a great chance to avenge themselves against FGCU. Both teams are looking to rebound after losses in their previous games, La Salle to Georgetown and FGCU to Georgia Southern.
La Salle is 4-4 on the season after losing their previous two games. Their offense has played well, scoring 82.5 points per game on 47% shooting from the field and 40% from three. La Salle’s problem this season has been their defense. The Explorers’ opponents are scoring 82.0 points per game while shooting 49% from the field and 41% from three. If La Salle is going contend this year in the A-10, they will need to improve their team defense.
Florida Gulf Coast University is 7-4 on the year and have won six of their last seven games. Their four losses have all come against quality opponents in Florida, Baylor, Michigan State, and Georgia Southern. They are scoring 77 points per game on 51% shooting from the field and 39% from three. While FGCU’s offense has not scored as frequently as La Salle’s has, the Eagles play tough defense and their opponents have been held to 70 points per game, shooting 43% from the field and a mere 26% from three.
What to expect
From La Salle, expect a fast pace and a good amount of three point shots. They will push the ball up the court and have a quick trigger on open shots no matter how much time is left on the shot clock. Defensively, expect La Salle to pressure FGCU’s ball handlers. Giannini would be wise to pressure FGCU for two reasons, one is that pressing the defense gets the entire team engaged at a higher lever, a problem that La Salle has been hampered by this season, particularly on defense. Another reason the Explorers may pressure the Eagles is that FGCU has not handled the full court press well this season. Long Beach State and Sienna both nearly defeated the Eagles by closing large second half deficits with the use of full court presses. FGCU gave Michigan State all kinds of problems until the Spartans switched to a full court press that slowed the Eagles down. Even if Dr. Giannini does not come out in a full court press, expect him to cover ball handlers tightly in the half court and if La Salle struggles to defend the Eagles, switch to a full court press in the second half.
For the Eagles, expect them to, as FGCU’s broadcast commentator J. Webb Horton says, “Sugar the bigs.” FGCU has three good interior players in All A-Sun Forward Marc-Eddy Norelia, the A-Sun Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Demetris Morant, and 6-foot-9, 250-pound Antravious Simmons. FGCU will want to work their half court offense to create post ups for their big men, and also use their three guards, Brandon Goodwin, Zach Johnson, and Christian Terrell to penetrate the defense and find the big guys for easier looks.
Key Matchup: Jordan Price and Demetris Morant
Price and Morant are both of their team’s power forwards, technically. The 6-foot-5 Price is a wing who is listed as a guard, but is tasked with defending opponents power forwards due to La Salle’s 4 out, 1 in lineup. Since most NCAA teams also play 4 out, 1 in, he has a good matchup for most games. But when Price has to defend an actual frontcourt player, that player tends to have a good game. We saw this against Temple when Obi Enechionyia scored 20 and grabbed 14 rebounds, and also in the close loss to Texas Southern, when the Tigers’ starting power forward Derrick Griffin had 16 points and 8 rebounds. To Price’s credit, he did render Georgetown’s Akoy Agau without a field goal attempt in 18 minutes, but Agau averages just 2.7 attempts per game and is out there for his skills on defense.
FGCU’s Demetris Morant, a UNLV transfer and the preseason A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year would be a center on most other teams in the nation. Offensively, Morant plays much like a center, setting picks, crashing the offensive glass, catching alley-oops, and posting up here and there. While Morant isn’t the type of player that Jordan Price would normally cover, Morant’s frontcourt partner, Antravious Simmons, is a traditional back to the basket center that has excellent touch around the basket and a thick, strong body that he uses to get position to score in many different ways. Either Demetrius Henry or Tony Washington will be used to defend Simmons and Jordan Price will have to do his best against Morant. When La Salle has the ball, FGCU will most likely keep this matchup due to Morant’s defensive versatility to defend Price.
One of college basketball’s top scorers and the A-Sun’s pre-season defensive player of the year. This will be a great battle to watch.
X-Factors Pookie Powell and Brandon Goodwin
The matchup of the AAC transfer point guards will be another intriguing storyline for this game. Powell (Memphis) has been everything La Salle fans hoped he would be, scoring 12.6 points and dishing out 2.6 assists while only turning the ball over a total of .6 times per game. FGCU’s achilles heel on defense has been guards who penetrate with dribble-drives. Pookie Powell is exactly the type of player that can expose this. With his handles, and quick acceleration, Powell collapses defenses and creates space for his teammates to get open perimeter looks. Powell will need to show up ready to play on Saturday, particularly on defense, against Brandon Goodwin (UCF), who has been equally as impactful for the Eagles, scoring 15.4 points with 3.5 assists per game. Goodwin is also a very athletic and quick guard that finishes at the rim and shoots the ball from long-range reasonably well too (36% on the year from three).
What La Salle needs to do to win
To win, La Salle will need to use their defense to create turnovers and ignite some up-tempo offense. La Salle’s edge going into this game is in the turnover battle. The Explorers, as a team, turn the ball over 11.5 times per game and with their 12.4 turnovers forced, they have a +.9 ratio on the year. Meanwhile, FGCU turns the ball over 14 times per game and forces only 11 per game, giving them a -3.0 team turnover ratio. La Salle’s offense is at it’s best when they are pushing the ball in transition and finding either open shooters on the wing or trailing behind the play. If the Explorers are able to force FGCU into making mistakes that lead to easy baskets in transition, the Tom Gola crowd will get behind them and give the Explorers the momentum to win this game.
What FGCU needs to do to win
FGCU’s advantage in this game comes with their size, half court defense, and rebounding. For FGCU to win this game, they will want to slow the game’s pace down and get into their halfcourt offense where their talented big men can do damage down low. FGCU plays with three guards around two traditional big men. The starting big man tandem of Antravious Simmons and Demetris Morant has the size (both stand 6-foot-9) to give La Salle all sorts of problems down low. Simmons had the best game of his career last year against La Salle when he scored 17 points and 10 rebounds. Add in FGCU’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season, Marc-Eddy Norelia, who has had a light playing load to this point (17.1 mpg in 7 games) due to a healing shooting wrist that was broken late in the offseason, and the Eagles have a frontcourt that can play with anyone in the nation. If FGCU runs their halfcourt offense without turning the ball over too much, and the Eagles are able to defend the three point line as well as they have been this season (sixth best 3-point defense in the nation). The Explorers will struggle to find answers defending the Eagles in the paint and keeping them off of the glass.
Prediction: 75-70 Florida Gulf Coast University
La Salle and FGCU are probably equally as skilled teams. Dr. John Giannini and Joe Dooley’s coaching balance each other out, But the size and scheme matchups favor FGCU in this game. The Explorer’s scoring punch and home court advantage will give them a big boost, they should come out of the gait playing inspired basketball. But ultimately, FGCU’s size and ability to get stops on defense down the stretch will make the difference and the Eagles will head home with a quality road win.
Photo: Linwood Ferguson/ Captive Photons
-La Salle loses to UMass in the first round of the A-10 tournament