La Salle University senior Chris Siver had a sneaking suspicion about what he’d see Friday when the Explorers faced Kansas State in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“I knew it was going to be a nail-biter,” he said from the Tom Gola Arena where he joined students, alumni and staff to watch the game from Kansas City, Mo. on two Jumbotrons.
Siver and fellow upperclassman Justin Campbell have followed the team throughout a memorable season which marks the first time in 21 years the Explorers were selected to compete in the Big Dance.
“I didn’t believe him at halftime,” Campbell said of Siver’s prediction, “but I sure believed him by the end of it.”
Translation: When a 44-26 halftime lead becomes a deficit before turning into a seat-of-the-pants 63-61 victory for a 13-seed team, nails get bitten and prayers get offered.
“I was in the hall with my rosary,” sophomore Anna Atiyeh said after the game.
Anna Allen, who graduated La Salle in 1980 and now works as Associate Dean of Students, may have been the only person in the arena who wasn’t surprised by the ups and downs of the game.
“After 35 plus years of watching La Salle basketball,” said Allen, “you know it’s never in the bag until the buzzer goes off.”
The team’s success has special meaning for the La Salle community, as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding.
“It’s been a great year for us so far,” freshman Mike Stein said. “We’re just now celebrating 150 years and we’re now in the tournament, so it’s like we’re breaking the curse.”
Sophomore Brian Caputo shared a similar sentiment, noting that Friday’s victory harkened back to the success of past La Salle basketball legends such as Tom Gola, Michael Brooks and Lionel Simmons.
“I think today’s win meant returning to the tradition La Salle had,” Caputo said. “We haven’t been really competitive in so long, so it’s really important, not just for students, but alumni too.”
Steve McGonigle graduated from the university in 1972 and has held season tickets ever since. He was elated as he watched the final seconds of the game.
“For me, it’s a great payback for a great coach and great players,” McGonigle said. “It’s tons of hard work that really brought them back to some national recognition.”
The victory was particularly important to university archivist Bro. Joseph Grabenstein, because it marked a “return to glory.”
Grabenstein graduated from La Salle in 1973 and has taught classes about the history of La Salle and the legacy of the university’s men’s basketball program.
“The young people who go to La Salle are now seeing what my generation and generations before us have experienced,” Grabenstein said.
More than basketball
During commercial breaks, fans in the arena watched students and faculty compete in the Student Government Association’s 22nd annual basketball marathon.
Students and faculty played short games against each other, and collections were taken to benefit the American Cancer Association.
Organizers are hopeful that the hundreds of students that gathered in the arena to watch the game in Kansas City also donated to the charity.
“They’re making us proud in Kansas [City], so we’re trying to hold it down here and raise money for a good cause,” said senior Maxine Dyjak, one of the event’s organizers.
The Explorers will face No. 12 seed Ole Miss at 7:40 p.m. Sunday in Kansas City, with the winner advancing to the Sweet Sixteen round.
Another local winner
In other Northwest Philadelphia basketball news, the Imhotep Institute Charter High School Panthers basketball team won its third consecutive state championship, and fourth in the past five years, with a 54-45 victory over Archbishop Carroll in Hershey on Friday night.
“We felt a couple of times that we were the best team in the state, regardless of the class we were in,” head coach Andre Noble told the Inquirer after a game that capped a season in which the team moved up to the PIAA’s AAA classification.