La Salle legend Lionel Simmons cheers Explorers to Sweet 16
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The baritone voice of Lionel Simmons boomed Sunday night across the largely deserted Sprint Center.
With most of the arena having cleared out after top-seeded Kansas' victory against North Carolina, he sat in the first couple of rows near the north baseline and opposite the bench as his beloved 13th-seeded La Salle battled No. 12 seed Mississippi in a ragtag third-round matchup of the NCAA tournament.
As relentlessly as he had once been on the court when he led the Explorers to three consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1988-90, the legendary L-Train was just as intense vocally throughout.
The 44-year-old Simmons yelled the loudest out of La Salle's tiny crowd. He clamored for Explorers baskets, pleaded with officials to make foul calls and encouraged Mississippi's gunning guard Marshall Henderson to keep shooting, like a true fan, not a former NBA lottery pick.
And when La Salle junior guard Tyrone Garland banked in his now infamous game-winning "Southwest Philly Floater" with 2.3 seconds to stun Mississippi 76-74 and send the Explorers to the their first Sweet 16 since 1955, Simmons exploded in celebration, jumping up and down with his fists above his head.
"This is crazy!" Simmons screamed. "This is crazy!"
Indeed it is for a La Salle program that has now won three games in five days in its first tournament appearance since 1992 after being an at-large selection that played in one of the First Four games on Wednesday. The Explorers (24-9) next play ninth-seeded Wichita State (28-8) on Thursday in the West region in Los Angeles.
"Nobody had faith in us!" junior guard Tyreek Duren screamed after the game.
Yet as crazy as La Salle's improbable run has been, so has been Garland's path. He only became eligible in late December after transferring from Virginia Tech, where he played just 11 minutes a game, and sitting out a year.
"It's the biggest shot I've ever made in my life," said Garland, who finished with 17 points.
It was a huge one too for Simmons, who as he walked to La Salle's locker room yelled again as his cell phone flooded with congratulatory text messages.
"We're on the map," said Simmons, La Salle's all-time leading scorer and third in NCAA history, who in 1990 won the Naismith College Player of The Year and was the John R. Wooden Award winner. "We're back. We're on the map, big time."
Simmons was practically La Salle's sixth man Sunday, as his alma mater led by as many seven in the first half, just like he had been in Friday's upset of fourth-seeded Kansas State.
As Henderson misfired on shots in the second half, Simmons let him hear about it.
"Shoot them out of the game!" he bellowed at Henderson, who finished the game with 21 points on 8-for-21 shooting from the field, including a 4-of-15 effort on three-pointers.
When the game appeared to be slipping away from the Explorers as they fell behind 69-64 with 4:19 left, he yelled even more.
"Need a bucket!" yelled Simmons, who wore a gray La Salle hoodie and blue swoosh pants with a black-and-white Atlanta Final Four cap.
And there was Simmons again just before Mississippi's final possession screaming, "We need a stop!" That's exactly what La Salle got after Henderson's shot in the crowded lane only hit the backboard, resulting in a shot clock violation.
That gave the ball back to the Explorers with 32 seconds left, setting up Garland's heroics over 6-foot-9 Mississippi forward Reginald Buckner.
"We talked all week about the great La Salle tradition," Explorers coach John Giannini said. "When you come in, you want to bring that back. These guys are doing it right before our eyes."
Simmons couldn't be prouder. Over the last 21 years, he has heard plenty about La Salle's struggles, particularly from former players from fellow Big 5 schools in Philadelphia.
"We've been bad for a lot of years," said the 6-7 Simmons, who played for the Sacramento Kings as a forward from 1990-97 before retiring due to chronic injuries. "I believe it cycles when teams have their down period. Ours was longer than anyone anticipated, but it makes this much more sweeter when you turn it around."
The most chiding came from ex-Temple standouts Nate Blackwell and Tim Perry about the Owls' frequent NCAA tournament appearances over the last three decades.
"I used to get quiet at that time," Simmons said. "But not now."
La Salle is now the only team in Philadelphia remaining in the NCAA tournament after ninth-seeded Temple's 58-52 loss to top-seeded Indiana on Sunday.
"It's awesome," Simmons said. "To see your club playing as well as they're playing and as far as they've come is just an unbelievable feeling. I'm just so happy and so proud to be from La Salle."
But with La Salle flying straight to Los Angeles on Monday and Simmons going with him, his baritone voice finally cracked for the first time all night when asked if he had packed enough clothes for the trip.
"Nahhhh," Simmons admitted sheepishly. "I packed for four days, not for 10 days."
With a laugh, Simmons smiled as big as Center City back in Philadelphia. His baritone voice then boomed again.
"I'm sure I'll be able to find what ever I need in LA," Simmons said. "I'll make it work."