Seconds after Tyrone Garland’s now-famous “South Philly Floater” put La Salle University in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament round of 16, the calls started coming in to Romaine Haywood’s phone.
“My buddy called me and the first thing he said was, ‘No. 21 just won the game!’ ” Haywood said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.
Two decades ago, No. 21 at La Salle belonged to Haywood, a former Atlantic City High School star who was a team captain during his junior and senior seasons for the Explorers. Haywood scored 1,083 points in his La Salle career, from 1993-96.
The Explorers reached the NCAA tournament four out of five years from 1988-92. That was the last time before this year, when they received one of the final bids to the field of 68.
La Salle beat Boise State 80-71 in a matchup of No. 13 seeds in the “First Four,” and went on to upset No. 4 Kansas State 63-61 in the round of 64 and No. 12 Mississippi 76-74 in the round of 32.
“I was sitting there watching by myself and screaming till I couldn’t scream anymore,” said Haywood, 39, who now lives in Collingswood and works with several education companies. “I’m excited. … (Garland’s shot) touched me deep.”
Haywood wasn’t alone in his excitement. Several other former La Salle players have South Jersey ties.
Port Republic resident Tom Piotrowski played for the Explorers from 1980-83 and ranks 11th in school history with 67 blocked shots. Lower Cape May Regional graduate Charlie Wise (1972-76) is seventh in school history with 407 career assists and is a member of the Big 5 Hall of Fame. Cape May Court House resident Tim Legler (1984-88) is 14th in school history with 1,699 career points and also is in the Big 5 Hall of Fame.
Legler, 46, an NBA analyst for ESPN, was working the night of the Boise State game.
“That night I told the producers of the show I was doing, ‘Don’t expect me to be too detailed,’ about the NBA games we were covering that night because I was watching La Salle play,” said Legler, who played in the NBA from 1989-2000 and later coached the Middle Township girls team for one season.
Piotrowski watched all three games at home with his wife, Kass, and other family members. Kass also went to La Salle, as did various family members on both sides.
“It’s really kind of a family affair for us,” said Piotrowski, 52, who played briefly for the Portland Trail Blazers and coached the boys team at Atlantic Christian until last year.
Piotrowski helped the Explorers reach the second round of the NCAA tournament as a senior in 1983. He said he has received a flurry of calls, texts and emails after each of La Salle’s wins over the past week.
“It’s exciting,” Piotrowski said. “It’s your school. You spent a lot of time there. You spilled a lot of blood there.”
Legler also played in the NCAA tournament, but during his NBA career he usually kept quiet while teammates talked about their alma maters in March.
“I’ve always been proud because I went to La Salle,” he said, “but it’s a lot easier to stick your chest out a little bit when your team’s doing something like this and bringing a lot of national recognition to the program.”
Legler said he has been asked about La Salle constantly on ESPN’s various programs the past few days. He said no one is likely to forget where he went to college now.
Haywood and Piotrowski, meanwhile, said they have been wearing plenty of blue and gold all week to support the team.
“I always wear La Salle colors,” Piotrowski said, “but I just recently bought a new shirt that I was really proud of, and I had no idea that they would do so well in the tournament, but I’ve been wearing it, like, every day. It needs washing, but I can’t take it off.”
He’s hoping to keep it on for at least another week. La Salle plays No. 9 Wichita State on Thursday, with the winner taking on either No. 2 Ohio State or No. 6 Arizona on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.
Piotrowski joked that, as a 7-footer, he isn’t a huge fan of La Salle’s guard-oriented style. But he likes the matchup with Wichita State.
So does Legler. He said so on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” on Tuesday. Shortly afterward, while Legler was on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall called in to the show. Unbeknownst to Legler, Marshall had followed him on the radio program.
“He was kind of, like, coming at it kind of strong, like talking some smack, and it was just like, wow, you know? I really struck a chord with this guy,” Legler said. “And I said to him, basically, ‘What do you expect me to do? Pick against my alma mater?’ So it was kind of funny, we were going back and forth a little bit.”
Haywood said the Explorers can go all the way to the Final Four. He had booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles for tonight’s game, but he had to cancel the trip due to a business meeting today.
Haywood said he hopes his meeting is over in time and he can find a TV. But just in case, he bought the mobile app that allows him to watch games on his phone.
“I had to,” he said.
After all, he has to see what No. 21 will do next.
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