By: Josh Abrams
Photos: Ryan Nix
OLNEY, PHILA, PA – Two very familiar foes faced off to start their respective seasons on Tuesday afternoon when the La Salle Explorers played host to the Drexel Dragons.
But this time around, something felt different, for many reasons.
That’s because for the very first time in Philadelphia’s storied basketball history, the classic Big-5 schools of La Salle, Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph's, and Penn welcomed Drexel into their newly renovated tradition. Instead of each team playing each other just once throughout the season (with the exception of A-10 opponents La Salle & St. Joe’s), they are split into two three-team “pods” – La Salle-Drexel-Temple and Villanova-Penn-St. Joe’s – and play two games against their group before a triple header on December 2 at the Wells Fargo Center. That event will conclude the tournament and crown an eventual champion.
If you win those two pod games, you clinch yourself a spot in the first ever Big-5 Championship game in front of what’s anticipated to be a packed house in South Philly.
Fans for both schools did their part in showing out for the squads’ season openers, and the home crowd got to go home happy as La Salle prevailed over Drexel, 67-61.
Senior guard Jhamir Brickus paced all scorers with 18 points, and led the way for a La Salle squad that saw three other of its Explorers reach double digits (Anwar Gill – 15, Khalil Brantley – 13, and Rokas Jocius with 10). And even those who didn’t find that mark made an impact in other areas, as well.
“Ryan Zan, he came in hard and got a couple hands on the ball to keep the play alive, then he hit a big three,” said Brickus. “Hopefully him doing that will take his confidence to the next level… and Andres Marrero hit two big threes; that’s just what he does. And then (Daeshon) Shepherd; that’s my guy… and I don’t let off of him.”
The support from the Coatesville native is indicative of the type of player whom he has molded into. Just ask La Salle head coach Fran Dunphy, who’s in his second season as the leader of the Explorers.
“He’s such a good player,” the Philadelphia basketball legend known as ‘Mr. Big 5’ expressed about his point guard. “He knows the game inside and out… he makes shots, and he knows exactly what we want to do. So we're grateful to have him.”
While the stakes, and point of the season in which the game was played, were different on Tuesday night, this all-Philly classic featured players from both teams who know each other very, very well.
“There’s guys from the city (that are) from La Salle,” said Drexel sophomore guard Justin Moore, who chipped in with 15 points. “I’ve played Jhamir since I was in high school, me and (Shepherd) went to the same high school (Archbishop Wood). It’s always good to go out there and play against them. It definitely adds a little fuel to the fire.”
After cracking a joke that he now likes to open the season against a fellow Big 5 opponent because they won the game, Dunphy offered a much more, well, Dunphy-like response, for lack of a better term.
“It’s a great test, and they (Drexel) got us here (at the Gola) last year,” expressed Dunphy. “We talked about it as a group. It’s just a really good win and anytime you play city games, they’re great. The fact we came out on the winning side tonight, it’s just a really good win for us.”
This clash between two brother-like opponents lived up to the hype of a typical Big 5 basketball game, and then some more.
It was deadlocked at 32 apiece after 20 minutes.
After Drexel took an early 7-2 advantage into the first media timeout, they never got the lead to above five points. The game had ‘down-to-the-last-possession’ written all over it.
But with exactly four minutes showing in the second frame, Brickus canned his second three pointer of the game and put La Salle ahead, 59-56. Drexel called timeout shortly afterwards, and the Explorer faithful erupted in loud cheers as they could sense what was to come.
Jhamir might not be the tallest or most physically-imposing player out there, but his demeanor on the court alone is enough to tell just how calm, cool and collected he is when he’s playing the game.
“I really just let (the game of basketball) come to me,” Brickus said. “I don’t rush anything, I don’t force anything, I just let the game to me. So once I did that, I stepped up and made shots.”
Dunphy quickly elaborated on that, pointing out just how special and crucial his offensive abilities are to the team’s success.
“I thought those two threes that he made were huge, but there were two really hard baskets. One was a reverse (layup) along the baseline in the second half… and then somehow he figured out a way to make that bank shot. And then you feel so comfortable when he’s there at the foul line late in the game, so he knows what he’s doing.”
With a crucial and early win in Big 5 play, La Salle needs just two more for a title. And talk about exciting; the Explorers’ next chance at a Big 5 victory occurs later this month on November 29 at one of Dunphy’s former homes, the Liacouras Center at Temple.
La Salle needs to take care of their business beforehand, though, including a five game stretch before eventually visiting their North Philly rival.
“Not yet,” Dunphy expressed when asked if he was thinking about that upcoming match with Temple. “We just talked about it in the locker room. It’s a really good win, but now we got Northeastern on Saturday and we gotta keep our focus… when it comes time it will be interesting.”
In retrospect there is no such thing as a “good loss”. But for Drexel head coach Zach Spiker, his confidence and determination to take this team to the heights it wants to go is as apparent after a loss as ever.
“I thought (La Salle) had two transition threes in the second half, and that was really the course of the game,” Spiker said. “We weren’t able to get to the foul line as much as we wanted to in the second half. (This was a) physically, physically contested game. Guys fought hard but I’ll double-down with our group. I know we’re a good team. Today we came up on the short end of the stick in these 40 minutes. We’ve got some tough guys who have been through a lot and I’m proud of them.”
Drexel travels to Winthrop on Saturday before coming home to face Temple. If the dragons want to avoid the 5th-place game at the Big 5 tournament on Dec. 2, they’ll need to defeat the Owls.