- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It has been less than two years since three players were accused of rape and La Salle’s basketball program was left in ruins. The school fired coach Billy Hahn in the wake of the scandal, which also claimed the job of women’s coach John Miller, who had been at the Philadelphia school for 18 seasons.

The prospects seemed bleak for a basketball program in disarray. Former Maine coach John Giannini took over the men’s program and was geared up for a long rebuilding process. His first season ended with La Salle posting a 10-19 record — its 13th consecutive losing season.

But suddenly, the long-lost Explorers have discovered winning again.

La Salle (17-7 overall) already has secured a winning conference record at 9-4 for the first time since joining the Atlantic 10 a decade ago. La Salle brings a seven-game winning streak into tonight’s meeting at the Smith Center with sixth-ranked George Washington, which has the nation’s longest victory streak at 14.

“I didn’t think it would take this long to win,” said Steve Smith, a senior who withdrew from the NBA Draft last year and is the front-runner for A-10 Player of the Year. “I don’t really look back at what might have been. If we didn’t go through what we did, we might not be where we are now.”

The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Smith shined in the Chicago pre-draft camp and probably would have been a second-round pick if he had chosen to stay in the draft. Instead, he decided to complete his college eligibility and is averaging a league-high 19.6 points and is third in the league with 7.9 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Explorers sit third in the Atlantic 10 and could land a first-round bye in the conference tournament, which goes to the top four seeds. They appear to have assured themselves a postseason bid — at least in the NIT — for the first time since reaching the NCAA tournament in 1992 and believe the Big Dance is in reach even if they don’t win the A-10 tournament.

“[Smith’s] decision to stay is by far is the biggest reason we are sitting here with a nice season,” said Giannini, who won a Division III national championship at Rowan College, not far from Philadelphia in South Jersey. “I was very confident we could build a strong program here long-term through recruiting, but we are experiencing success a lot quicker than I thought we would.”

The atmosphere is quite a contrast to the summer of 2004, when three players were charged with raping two women’s basketball players. Gary Neal, who now plays for Towson, and Michael Cleaves were accused of raping a 19-year-old University of New Haven player at a summer camp. They later were found not guilty during a jury trial.

Dzaflo Larkai was arrested for the same crime involving a La Salle women’s basketball player. The incident took place a year earlier, but the woman said both men’s and women’s coaches told her not to report it. The charges were later dropped.

Hahn, a former Maryland player and a long-time assistant coach, was forced out.

“Everything was crazy,” Smith said. “It seemed to spiral out of control with all the controversy. It was a tough time. Things were happening so fast. It was hard to think about anything.”

Smith, a Philadelphia native, decided not to transfer. Gianinni’s first La Salle team had only seven scholarship players and the coach recalls having to play zone most of the season because he couldn’t risk getting in foul trouble with man-to-man. Although the Explorers finished 10-19, they gained confidence by winning five of their last 10 league games.

The Explorers also gained experience and now have a veteran backcourt with sophomore Darnell Harris (12.8 points) and senior point guard Jermaine Thomas (12.3 points, 8.9 assists) to complement Smith. La Salle also has depth — particularly compared to last season — with nine available scholarship players after losing sixth man Marshall Taylor, who had an emergency appendectomy after playing 13 games.

La Salle has done it largely with defense, holding opponents to a conference-low 39.8 percent from the field.

But after beginning the season 10-2, the Explorers lost five straight.

“We have been through tough spots before,” Smith said. “What we went through this season doesn’t even compare to what we went through in the past. I really wanted to experience winning in my senior year. I wanted to be part of the group that turned things around.”

Former La Salle assistant coach Roland Houston recruited Smith before leaving for GW after the 2003-04 season. Houston remains close with Smith and the players in the program. And the GW assistant is glad to see things finally work out for La Salle after its troubled times.

“It was very difficult because no one won in that situation,” said Houston, who spent five seasons at La Salle. “Everybody lost. You had a couple lives that were hurt on both sides. The players went through some tough times. That is why I am happy for their success this year — because they deserve it.”

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