In 1992, Speedy Morris coached La Salle to a 20-11 record (12-4 in the MAAC) and got the Explorers dancing, the program’s fourth bid to the NCAA Tournament in five years.
Two decades later, La Salle was still salivating to taste the treat it hadn’t enjoyed since. But that changed in 2013, and OJ Lewis was there for it.
Lewis was a walk-on freshman for the Explorers during the 2012-13 season, attending a university he had never heard of until months before he moved to Philadelphia from Mitchellville, Maryland. The owner of his AAU team knew some coaches at La Salle, so when Lewis didn’t like his offers at the end of high school, La Salle agreed he could come north for a little test of his abilities that summer.
“They told me they would give me a shot to walk on the team if I came to the school,” Lewis recalled. “But I still had to go through the regular process, so it was me and a couple of other guys who tried out for the team.”
He took the plunge, enrolling at La Salle without a scholarship, let alone a guarantee of a spot on the roster, and it paid off, allowing Lewis to participate in one of the greatest seasons in school history.
Welcome to Philly
La Salle earned an invite to the 2012 NIT the season before Lewis arrived on campus, the school’s first postseason tournament bid since going to the Big Dance in 1992. Head coach John Giannini was heading into his ninth season at the helm, and there an energy to the team that Lewis had never experienced before.
“The intensity of that team, it was something very new for me, especially coming from high school,” Lewis said. “High school wasn’t intense to me. It was more slowed down, but everything was very fast, very tough, especially in Coach G’s program. Everything was all about defense, so that was something I had to pick up on very fast.”
After preseason conditioning, it was time for the start of the season. The team opened with a 73-66 win against Delaware, then followed it up with a clunker: an 81-74 home defeat to Central Connecticut State, a team that would eventually finish 13-17 and seventh in the NEC.
“So many good things happened that season that I don’t even remember what happened after that game,” Lewis said. “If I know Coach G, he definitely grilled us, was yelling at us, but after anything like that happens, it’s on to the next game, so you never could dwell on anything long. Not even a minute.”
The Explorers had to put it behind them as they had a date with Villanova one week later, the opening Big 5 matchup on their schedule. Lewis barely knew what La Salle was before coming, let alone anything about the Big 5.
“I never heard of the Big 5. I didn’t know how serious the competition in that was or how big it was to have bragging rights of winning the Big 5,” he explained. “I didn’t know how serious it was for La Salle to beat Villanova.”
He learned quick, though, as the buzz consumed campus.
“The atmosphere was crazy,” Lewis remembered. “The tickets were sold very quickly. Everyone on campus was so excited. I didn’t realize it was that big.”
A back-and-forth overtime thriller ended in a 77-74 La Salle victory, the team’s first win against the Wildcats since 2002, and planted the seed of belief in Lewis’s head.
“The intensity of that game from beginning to end was just magnificent, and the feeling of actually winning and seeing how crazy everyone went after the win was just beautiful,” he said. “That’s when I started to think, ‘We’re really good.’”
The team had a solid rest of its non-conference slate, entering the A-10 portion of the schedule with a 10-3 record. But the rigors of conference play caught La Salle early, and the team was just 4-3 through its first seven league games.
Sink or Swim
Now a few years removed, Lewis didn’t remember exactly when it happened, but around that time, senior leader Ramon Galloway called a players-only meeting and spoke to the entire group.
“(Galloway) called a meeting himself in the locker room for just the players only, no coaches or anything, and had a heart-to-heart conversation with everyone,” Lewis explained, “basically influencing us that this was the opportunity we have, what we’ve already put into the season, it’s gone if we don’t lock in right now. Our attitude has to change, our focus has to change.
“After that conversation, you could tell everyone’s energy shifted. They became more positive and more focused. After that meeting, everything just changed.”
La Salle closed the regular season with seven wins in nine games, and with a deep A-10 projected to send several teams to the Big Dance and wins over ranked Butler and VCU, plus the early-season conquest of Villanova, the Explorers were in position for their first bid in 21 years.
There was no guarantee, though, especially after a 69-58 loss to Butler in the first game of the A-10 Tournament, leaving La Salle with no more opportunities to impress the selection committee.
Lewis felt good about La Salle’s chances of dancing, and the team kept its focus in the days between the A-10 Tournament ouster and Selection Sunday, just like it had been, he said.
He admitted that come the day the bracket was revealed, though, you could tell there were some nerves in the room.
“We believed we were going to make the tournament, but at the same time, you know everyone in this room is nervous,” Lewis said. “We tried to stay calm. We stayed to ourselves as a team, didn’t really go around anyone else. We just wanted to hear the verdict.”
As the Selection Show went on, Lewis and his teammates watched as team after team took spot after spot, slowly whittling away at the open bids.
“You could feel in the room that everyone was getting a little nervous and the tension was a little different, just seeing how all these teams are being called and we’re getting down to the last few teams getting selected,” he said. “The nerves were really bad when it came down to the wire. Then they called our name, and that’s when everything flipped.”
Pandemonium broke as La Salle’s name flashes across the screen, at the team’s watch party and across the campus. After the players had their fun together, they joined their classmates outside.
“People were running out of their dorms,” Lewis remembered. “We ran out there with everyone. It was like this one, huge celebration with the students, teacher, the players. The campus was just flooded. It meant a lot to our alumni. The phones started blowing up to our coaches as soon as we got selected.”
Lewis said he can recall watching the 2012 NCAA Tournament the year before in his computer class in high school, the one of many tournaments he watched growing up. It was surreal to find himself gearing to suit up for the March Madness 365 days later.
“It was amazing to me and mind blowing that I’m actually here, I get to experience this,” he explained.
The selection committee chose La Salle with one of the final four at-large bids into the 68-team field, relegating the Explorers to a play-in game in Dayton for the right to enter the 64-squad first round. That didn’t faze Lewis, though. He had genuine confidence in his team to rip a run to write about.
“I believed in us. I believed in our leaders,” Lewis said. “I believed in Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren, Tyrone Garland, Jerrell Wright. I believed in these guys. I really didn’t care who we played, honestly. I really thought we were that good, and I just felt we were really prepared.”
The Big Dance Begins
Standing in La Salle’s way was Boise State, which finished tied for fourth in the Mountain West behind two dynamic scorers in Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks. The Explorers weren’t worried about having to play in Dayton, though, Lewis said. The team was excited for its opportunity, and that’s all it needed.
“All freshman year, I heard the same thing: no matter what the stage is or who we’re playing, just believe in your training,” Lewis remembered. “That’s all (Giannini) reiterated before every game in the tournament or before we even got to our first game. Just believe in your training, believe in the things we’ve practiced, and I guarantee you we’ll be successful. That always kept us in perspective or brought us back down to reality.”
His team escaped the Broncos and their talented guards, 80-71, off the back of 22 and 21-point performances from Garland and Galloway, plus double digits from other key contributors, including 5-of-6 shooting from behind the arc from junior guard Sam Mills. Six players were asked to play more than 30 minutes each, and they got it done.
“To come out on top in that game, that just became so exciting,” he said. “Oh, we’re in the tournament, we’re in the Dance, we’re going to go to the next city. That was the best part of that was we keep dancing. That was our slogan the whole time: keep dancing.”
La Salle danced from Dayton to Kansas City to take on No. 4 seed Kansas State in the Round of 64. The Explorers traversed more than 1,000 miles for the meeting. K-State drove 121.
“We’re playing K-State in Kansas City, so to us, that’s like they’re not even giving us a fair chance. They’re at home, honestly,” Lewis explained. “This is definitely an away game. As soon as you come out from the locker room, all you see is purple. That’s all you see: purple and white. It’s definitely an away game as if we’re playing at K-State.”
Lewis said the unfriendly confines added a bit of pressure knowing nothing would go its way, but the team also had the advantage of low expectations.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t relieve any pressure, because we all know you got Cinderella teams and you got heartbreakers in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I don’t like to say it, but if we lost, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, because we were one of the last four teams in. The pressure was on them.
“We came into that game very motivated. Everyone was on their high horse. All the main players were feeling good. We were not intimidated. We weren’t anything. We just wanted to go. We just wanted to play, right now.”
And they did.
The No. 13 seed dominated the first 20 minutes, heading into the break with a 44-26 lead. The team was feeling good in the locker room.
“We’re excited. We’re like, ‘We’re about to blow these boys out,’” Lewis said. “Of course, we’re still trying to stay level headed and stuff like that. In the basketball world, sometimes you’re on first in the first half, but in the second, nothing is falling.”
As La Salle trotted back onto the court for the second half, Lewis noticed a change in the crowd.
“I remember us coming back out, and half the stands are filled with Kansas Jayhawks fans now, and they’re rooting for us, like screaming La Salle,” he recalled. “So now the playing field is even. That was a beautiful thing to see right there.”
But an invisible lid found its way onto La Salle’s rim in the second half. While the Explorers struggled to put points on the board, the Wildcats chipped away at the deficit. That 18-point cushion became a one-point margin with less than a minute to play.
Even as the lead disappeared, Lewis said his team remained focused on relying on what had taken them through the entire season up to that point.
“It might have messed with our emotions, but at the end of the day, we still believe in our defense at the end,” he said. “Even though they were scoring whenever they wanted to, it was still tough shots. They were making a lot of tough shots that shrunk the gap, so it wasn’t like they’re getting easy buckets or anything like that, so we weren’t nervous about that. We stayed true to our defense, and that’s what got us over the edge and won us the game.”
In a one-on-one situation in the paint, Wright stood tall against Kansas State’s Jordan Henriquez, contesting his shot, then coming down with the rebound to secure the stop.
Wright was huge in the game before, going 9-of-10 from the free-throw line, getting points from the charity stripe when his team couldn’t find ways to get on the scoreboard otherwise. He made three free throws in the final 30 seconds, including two in a row to give La Salle the 62-61 advantage on the possession before. Wright was a 63.3 percent free-throw shooter for the year.
“He is the person who won us the game,” Lewis said. “We figured out they can’t guard him, so we kept giving him the ball.”
As Wright stepped to the line for his penalty shots while the Explorers were down 61-60 with 30 seconds remaining, Lewis watched from the sideline.
“I know I’m nervous, I’m scared,” he said. “I looked to make sure, and he looked calm, so that calmed me down a little bit. He looked fine.”
And he was, just like he had been all night. Wright’s 21 points led all scorers, and La Salle escaped with the upset, 63-61. His teammates didn’t literally put him on their shoulders, but they did in spirit.
“Metaphorically, yes, because nobody was going to be able to lift him up. But yes, we were jumping on him, screaming, hollering, chanting in the locker room. It was crazy after that game,” Lewis explained with a laugh of relief mixed in. “The crazy thing about it was actually hearing the uproar from Kansas Jayhawks fans. They were going crazy. They were screaming La Salle.”
The celebration afterward in the locker room and knowing he would continue to dance gave Lewis feelings he couldn’t even articulate.
“It was a feeling that I couldn’t really explain, because I’ve never felt like that, not in a basketball game,” he said. “I’ve been in championships and things like that, but nothing to that extent, not on that stage. That was a crazy feeling that we actually beat K-State when everybody had us losing. We had maybe less than a 2-percent chance of winning I believe, and we won. The atmosphere after that game was just unbelievable.”
Ready for the Rebels
The ride was far from over. No. 12 seed Ole Miss had pulled an upset in its first-round matchup, too, knocking out No. 5 seed Wisconsin, 57-46. The Explorers would be tasked with handling Marshall Henderson, Murphy Holloway and the rest of the Rebels attack.
Lewis felt good about his team’s chances, and it had nothing to do with Ole Miss.
“I honestly was probably more excited this go around, because at that moment, I’m thinking we’re the Cinderella team,” he said. “I’m feeling like we’re destined to win this. So in my mind, I’m excited to see how we’re going to win it. I know we’re going to win it, but how?”
It would be with a contested layup via Garland with 2.5 ticks left, which would give La Salle a 76-74 lead that soon after became the final score.
Those were two of Garland’s 17 points that night, but he wasn’t having as good of an offensive night as his teammate Galloway, who shot 8-of-13 from the field and drilled six triples. The play was meant for him.
“That wasn’t the play at all. That’s the funny thing, that wasn’t the play. That right there was just miscellaneous,” Lewis laughed. “I believe we were trying to get it to Ramon Galloway, but they cut that off. I think they were playing zone at the time, and were just swinging it around, swinging it around. A play was set for Ramon to get a good shot, but things like that don’t happen all the time, so you have to improvise. Ty does it, and he goes and gets a bucket.
“I was a little nervous at that point before he started to drive, because I knew what the play was, and were not about to get that play. I did not know what was about to happen, and time was going down. I honestly started to get scared, because I didn’t think we were going to get a good look. But great things happen when you have great scorers on your team.”
With that, La Salle was off to the Sweet 16, the program’s first since losing to Bill Russell’s San Francisco in the 1955 National Championship. That’s where the run would end as the Explorers fell, 72-58, to No. 9 seed Wichita State in their next game, but the team had killed a nearly six-decade-old drought.
Lewis admitted that early in the season, the Sweet 16 was not something he had on the radar for his team. It fact, it wasn’t until much later that he felt certain the Explorers would plan on the second weekend.
“I knew we were a tournament team after we beat Butler and VCU back-to-back,” he explained. “I knew right then and there. Now, how far we’d go, I didn’t know yet. When I believed we were a Sweet 16 team, I would say at halftime of the K-State game. That’s when I really felt, even before winning the game, that’s when that thought crossed my mind that we were a Sweet 16 team.”
It has been more than six years since Lewis and his team made its upset run to the Sweet 16, winning three-straight games as a No. 13 seed to be one of the final 16 sides still alive for the national championship. It allowed the walk-on to experience a deep tournament run from the other side after having watched so many teams achieve the accomplishment on TV over the years. Now having actually been on a team that made it to the second weekend, he can compare the expectations and reality.
“I believe it’s even better (than it looks),” he said. “It’s fun being in that environment, actually winning and actually destroying brackets. After every single game, from the number one player down to me, everyone probably got over 100 followers. For us, that’s beautiful. We loved our followers on social media. You see your name trending; you see all these things about you. You got people reaching out to you, just saying how proud they are, they’re so excited. It’s a beautiful moment.”
Lewis will always be part of one of the greatest runs and teams in La Salle men’s basketball history, and that’s something he cherishes. Not only that March, though, but his entire experience as a member of that team.
“I know a lot of other old buddies or teammates who had walk-ons on their team or were walk-ons, and based on their experiences, it’s completely opposite of mine,” he said. “Some walk-ons don’t get treated right or things like that, but here at La Salle, they treated me no different. Nobody on campus treated me any differently. I was treated as a regular person on the team, and honestly, I felt like I got more love, because I was the walk-on.
“It was a humbling experience to know I will always be a part of La Salle history. I will always be on that roster, and I will always be remembered by a lot of different alumni who are into basketball like that, and they love their history. When you’re talking about that team, you’re talking about me, too. It’s definitely a proud moment.”
He said that the members of that team are still friends today, and Lewis keeps up with his former teammates and their lives. What they experienced together brought them together, and that’s a bond that will take much longer than six years to break.
To accomplish what they did, each Explorer had to sacrifice something, whether it be playing time, free time, sweat equity or all of the above, and that allowed the team to succeed as a unit. Lewis said this was the number one lesson he learned from the Sweet 16 season.
“I’d never really come off a bench or anything like that in my basketball career before college, so it was just a different learning experience for me to actually get comfortable with that and having that feeling inside of you,” he explained. “Everyone wants to play. You can be sitting on the bench and see everyone else playing and say, ‘Man, I should be out there.’ Everybody goes through those type of emotions.
“If you really love winning and you love your team, none of that will matter. It will not matter, and I learned that from that year alone. I learned what sacrifice was, because I was a lot of them on the team sacrifice. They sacrificed their own agenda so we could come together and get this one ultimate goal. I learned from our seniors, our juniors, our leaders, that it ain’t about you.”