VILLANOVA, Pa. — La Salle’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament drought is over.
After a 21-year absence, the Explorers were rewarded with a spot in the 68-team Division I field.
Yes, the Explorers — which had the longest tournament dry spell of any of Philadelphia’s six D-I schools — returned for the first time since 1992.
“We think we deserve to be there and you can’t win unless you’re there,” coach John Giannini said Sunday night. “We’re in no different a situation than VCU was the year they went to the Final Four. It’s a big step for our program.”
The Explorers (21-9) will play fellow No. 13 seed Boise State in the First Four on Wednesday night at the University of Dayton.
Villanova and Temple will join La Salle in the tournament. The Wildcats (20-13) return to the tournament after missing postseason play last season. Villanova is the No. 9 seed and will play No. 8 North Carolina in the South Regional. The Wildcats moved into NCAA tournament contention in January with back-to-back victories over top-five teams Louisville and Syracuse.
The Owls (23-9) keep rolling under coach Fran Dunphy. The ninth-seeded Owls are making their sixth straight NCAA appearance and play North Carolina State in Dayton, Ohio in the East Region.
“There was a chance we weren’t going to be playing in the NCAA tournament,” Dunphy said. “Who knows what the committee will select? Hopefully we had done enough.”
La Salle was one of the few teams that had to actually see its name on TV to know it truly made the field. While the Explorers boasted wins over Butler and VCU, their disappointing loss against the Bulldogs in the Atlantic 10 tournament left them nervous watching the selection show.
The Explorers crammed staff and media into a small conference room in the bowels of Tom Gola Arena.
Before the field was unveiled, there was plenty of positive energy. Giannini mingled, smiling, holding a diet peach Snapple iced tea, shaking hands with all the reporters. Most of the players were glued to their phones.
After Middle Tennessee State’s name was called, there were some murmurs in the crowd. Ramon Galloway got up to leave the room after every commercial break. After two regions were revealed, Giannini stood in the middle of the room with his arms crossed, no longer smiling.
D.J. Peterson’s leg started to shake. Galloway slumped in his chair. Steve Zack tapped his fingers against the chair next to him. Jerrell Wright’s hands were clasped over his face.
Before the fourth region was revealed, Galloway yelled out “come on.” Some people put their heads down after Ole Miss was slotted in.
When the Explorers saw their name on TV, they went wild. The players all jumped out of their chairs and got together for one big group hug, while jumping and hollering, knocking over many chairs. Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway were locked in an extra long hug in the middle. Duren later had one arm around Galloway and the other around Tyrone Garland while yelling out a guttural “Yeaaaaah” over and over again.
A couple of minutes later, Giannini, who was off to the side hugging and shaking hands with his staff, quietly came over to the players and started shaking their hands. Garland rubbed his coach’s head and the players then started a new giant group hug with their coach in the middle. They started chanting “All we do is turn it up.”
Some players got on their phones to talk to family and friends. Before some players left the room and others stayed behind to talk to the media, Galloway screamed, “We’re going dancing. Let’s get on our dancing shoes.”
They found ’em — and they fit just fine.
Duren, who averaged 15 points, texted throughout the show with Temple’s Khalif Wyatt and Villanova’s Tonny Chennault. Just a bit of Big 5 brotherhood on the biggest hoops night of the season.
“They were both saying after their names called, ‘You guys will be the last ones in.’ They both said had confidence, telling me ‘Don’t even worry about it. Y’all are gonna make it,’ ” Duren said. “It was nice to be texting with them and talking with them, especially because they were already in. They pretty much kept me up while I was over there nervous.”
La Salle was once among the elite back when Gola, a three-time All-America guard, led the program to consecutive trips to the NCAA championship game in 1954 and 1955. The Explorers won the 1954 national championship.
But the team wouldn’t remain on top for long and lean times hit the program for most of the last two decades. Last season’s NIT berth was its first since 1991.
Dunphy was a former captain when he played at La Salle and congratulated the program on making the tournament.
Dunphy led Penn to nine tournaments and the Owls to the last six. Temple is one of eight teams (Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Louisville, Marquette, Michigan State and Wisconsin are the others) making its sixth straight appearance. Temple is in the tourney for the 31st time overall.
“Guys have been waiting for this moment. Mood is up now,” Wyatt said. “We have a new season, a new opportunity, so we’re going to try to take advantage of it.”
In the other second-round matchup in Temple’s bracket in Dayton on Friday, top-seeded Indiana will face the winner of the First Four game between LIU-Brooklyn and James Madison.
The Wildcats, the 1985 national champions, are making their 33rd appearance. This is the fifth time since the tournament began to seed teams in 1979 that the Wildcats will be a No. 9. Villanova is 12-7 in the tournament under coach Jay Wright and played in the 2009 Final Four.
Villanova lost to eventual national-champion North Carolina in that game in Detroit. The Wildcats’ only tournament win against the Tar Heels came in the regional final in 1985. North Carolina also beat Wright’s Wildcats in 2005 and is 4-1 vs. them in the tournament.
“I thought we could be a good team,” Wright said. “But I didn’t know how long it would take or where we would be.”
The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia is hosting second- and third-round games on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
In the Midwest Region, No. 2 Duke (27-5) plays No. 15 Albany (24-10) and seventh-seeded Creighton (27-7) takes on No. 10 Cincinnati (22-11).
In the South Region, No. 2 Georgetown (25-6) plays No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (24-10) and seventh-seeded San Diego State (22-10) plays 10th-seeded Oklahoma.
Dan Gelston can be reached at www.twitter.com/APGelston
Freelancers Dave Zeitlin and Aaron Bracy contributed to this report.