In a conference as competitive as the Atlantic 10, every game is critical, especially when it comes to two teams whose early season records have set them up for a potential NCAA Tournament at large bid. Such was the case Wednesday night at Halton Arena as Charlotte hosted LaSalle in the conference opener for both teams.
The 49ers and Explorers came into the game with a total of five combined losses. LaSalle entered the game at 10-3, while Charlotte was 12-2. However. neither team has an elite non conference win on their resume and both have a loss to Miami Florida. In a stacked A-10, where four teams made the NCAA Tournament last season (Temple, Xavier, St Bonaventure and St Louis), another made the NIT championship game (UMass) and VCU and Butler have now joined in the fray, a 1-0 conference start seems even more important.
I made the two hour drive from Columbia in rush hour traffic to Charlotte and got to the Halton Arena right before game time. Desperately needing food, I went up to the concessions stand and ordered a Bojangles chicken sandwich and fries. The attendant warned me the sandwich was hot. She didn't tell me that it was actually nuclear temperature wise. Combine that with the saltiest fries ever and I am glad I had a got a drink with the meal.
The 49ers would awake from their scoring funk with a 12-0 run over the next four and a half minutes. A DeMario Mayfield three pointer would put Charlotte up 18-8 and LaSalle called a timeout with exactly ten minutes left in the half, desperate to find some offense against a suffocating 49ers defense.
That played directly into Charlotte's strength as one of the best two point FG percentage defensive teams in the country, ranked thirteenth in the category. With the Explorers misfiring from three as badly as the 49ers T-shirt Gatling gun's misfiring during one of the media timeouts and the 49ers clamping down on any shots inside, the Charlotte extended their lead to 33-17 at the half. Had the 49ers made a few of their free throws, the lead would have been twenty at the half.
For basically the entire first half, arguably the 49ers best player, Chris Braswell, was out of it. He wasn't aggressive on defense, wasn't hustling and took a couple of ill advised shots. Having seen him twice now, Braswell can be brilliant with his passing and his inside post moves. He can also be infuriating, taking long fallaway jumpers that never hit. And the fans near me were not happy with Braswell and made their displeasure known.
Charlotte couldn't put the game away however as LaSalle would hang around, mostly due to Galloway's second half heroics as he scored seventeen points in the final twenty minutes of the game. With about three minutes left, Duren stole the ball and found a streaking Galloway who nailed a sweet reverse dunk that resulted in a large buzz from the crowd. The Explorers were now down only six, 65-59 with 2:53 left in the game.
But Henry responded with an empthatic dunk of his own to put Charlotte up 67-59. Despite Galloway, LaSalle would not get any closer. The 49ers would get their first A-10 win of the season downing the Explorers 74-65.
Henry was the leading scorer for Charlotte with twenty points. E Victor Nickerson added thirteen points, seven rebounds and four assists. Darion Clark had twelve points and Mayfield added ten points. Braswell only had seven points on the night. The 49ers shot 48 percent from the field and were 22 of 31 from the line.
Galloway led all scorers with twenty three points, but he had to earn them. He shot 7 of 29 from the field, including a brutal 3 of 14 from beyond the arc. He did also add nine rebounds. The Explorers had twenty one offensive rebounds but couldn't take advantage of the second chance opportunities. Duren added twelve points, five assists and three steals, while Wright had eleven points and nine rebounds. LaSalle entered the game shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc. On Wednesday night, the Explorers were 4 of 29 on three point attempts, thirteen percent on the night. LaSalle shot thirty two percent from the field in general.
Charlotte had their conference opener win. Every win is precious in the rough and tumble A-10 conference. LaSalle left Halton Arena licking their wounds and still looking for that precious first conference win.