An East Passyunk Crossing high school alumnus has helped his college squad to reach the Sweet 16.
When the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship selection committee welcomed the La Salle University Explorers to the Big Dance March 17 after a 21-season absence, junior guard Tyreek Duren dubbed the acknowledgment “unbelievable.”
After three thrilling victories, the 2010 alumnus of Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, 1736 S. 10th St., and his teammates have become credible crusaders and find themselves in the Sweet 16, where they will try to discover more glory tonight against the Wichita State Shockers at Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
“I’ve been on a rough road since I’ve been here for basketball, so for us to make the tournament, it’s like ‘Wow,’” the sharpshooter said St. Patrick’s Day of helping his squad to transform from a 14-16 also-ran his freshman year to a 21-12 National Invitation Tournament invitee last season to a 24-9 West Regional semifinalist this campaign.
The 6-footer has enjoyed extra euphoria since the committee endowed his Olney institution with an at-large bid Selection Sunday. Having compiled an 11-5 Atlantic 10 Conference mark, which included upsetting ranked foes Butler and Virginia Commonwealth universities, the Explorers received a No. 13 seed and a March 20 First Four date with the Boise State Broncos at Ohio’s University of Dayton Arena. Playing on the 150th anniversary of their school’s founding as La Salle College and the 59th commemoration of the 1954 team’s title win over the Bradley University Braves, coach John Giannini’s charges earned the university’s first NCAA tourney triumph in 23 years, bucking their Mountain West Conference opponents 80-71. Though he tallied only four points, 11 below his regular-season average, the Explorers’ second-leading marksman distributed five assists and collected two steals.
Accustomed to experiencing postseason success and filling the role of the favorite courtesy of playing on two Catholic League title units and a state championship squad during his South Philly days, the Second-Team conference designee accepted underdog status two days later at Kansas City’s Sprint Center. Hot hands from senior guard Ramon Galloway and sophomore forward Jerrell Wright paced the Explorers to a 44-26 halftime bulge against the fourth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats — the Big 12 Conference tournament runners-up — and timely defense prevented a catastrophic collapse as Duren, with three points, two assists and rebounds and one block and steal, et al defanged their adversaries 63-61.
“Tyreek wasn’t really playing like himself those first two games, but I knew he’d get back on track,” Carl Arrigale, his high school coach, said of Duren’s offensive output, which included a 2-for-13 field goal success rate. “We’ve been texting between games, and right after K-State, I just gave him a reminder of what a great contributor he is and told him I knew he’d be OK.”
The resident of the 2900 block of South 15th Street has been boisterously cheering for the Explorers, as Earl Pettis, another Neumann-Goretti product, suited up for two seasons under Giannini. During the Saints’ 30-1 run three seasons ago, Arrigale relied on Duren, a Yeadon resident, the same way his postsecondary coach is doing, as a member of a four-guard set. Though using one means often sacrificing size, it typically yields a quickness advantage. All along, Arrigale has known his former athlete’s speed would benefit the Explorers.
“John has been putting all the parts together,” he said, “and I’ve felt Tyreek would be the guy to drive the car.”
Having led the Explorers in scoring seven times, Duren knew his goal would be to visit the goal often against the Southeastern Conference’s University of Mississippi Rebels Sunday. The 12th-seeded representatives from the Magnolia State had relied on junior shooting guard Marshall Henderson to register a 27-8 record coming in, and the 6-foot-2 baller drew constant attention from La Salle’s guards, with Duren and his peers failing to fall prey to the hype surrounding his perimeter play. Galloway outshot Henderson from beyond the arc, with six three-pointers to the flashy figure’s four, but the latter performer’s team looked as if it would emerge victorious until Duren proved his durability in the clutch.
A 78 percent free-throw shooter, he knocked down a pair of charity-stripe attempts with 1:07 left to knot the score at 74-74. With 32 seconds left, Duren accepted an inbounds pass and waited for an opening.
“Any team that we play, no matter if they’re big or small, we try to beat them off the dribble,” he said. “We create opportunities for our teammates or finish at the cup if we get our opportunity.”
Duren, who finished with 19 points, fed junior guard Tyrone Garland, a John Bartram High grad, for a bank shot, dubbed the Southwest Philly Floater, with 2.5 ticks left. An errant Ole Miss heave preserved a 76-74 win and set up La Salle’s first Sweet 16 appearance since ’55.
“At this point, you’re too young to be getting tired,” Duren said of winning three times in five days.
He will need his energy for tonight’s 10:17 p.m. TBS-aired tilt against the Shockers, who lived up to their name Saturday by beating the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs, 76-70.
“I just listen to the people closest to me,” Duren said. “They tell me we are just as good as any other team in the tournament, in the country. If we play tough, we can beat anybody.”
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 124.
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