Davidson’s Wildcats spent the final 20 minutes of a practice earlier this week working on end-game situations.
That kind of preparation paid off in a big way for the top-seeded Wildcats on Friday afternoon, when guard Tyler Kalinoski’s layup as the buzzer sounded gave them a 67-66 victory against No. 9 La Salle in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
“I looked up and there were four or five seconds left and let my instincts take over, just told myself to attack the rim or (pass it) it to an open shooter,” said Kalinoski, the Atlantic 10’s player of the year who had struggled with his shot for much of the game.
Kalinoski attacked, taking two dribbles and putting up a left-handed shot that hit the back of the rim, bounced off the backboard and then hit the rim three more times before falling through.
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It gave the 24th-ranked Wildcats (24-6) their 10th victory in a row and moved them into a semifinal game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday against fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, a 70-67 winner against No. 4 seed Richmond.
Despite an off-game shooting – from the floor and the free-throw line – and being outrebounded 41-30 by the taller and stronger Explorers, Davidson found a way against La Salle (17-16), scoring the game’s final nine points.
The Wildcats rallied from an 18-point first-half deficit and still trailed by nine with 4 minutes, 45 seconds remaining on a dunk by Explorers forward Jerrell Wright.
That’s when things got interesting. Wright’s dunk made the score 66-57, but those were La Salle’s last points.
After a 3-pointer by Kalinoski, he further cut into La Salle’s lead with a layup, making it 66-62 with 1:23 remaining.
Kalinoski was fouled, but he missed his free throw. The rebound, however, was corralled by Davidson’s Jordan Barham, who called timeout as he hit the floor with the ball.
Coming out of the timeout, Davidson’s Jack Gibbs hit a 3-pointer and was fouled. But he, too, missed the free throw, giving the Explorers the ball with 1:18 left and a 66-65 lead.
La Salle kept possession after an offensive rebound by Steve Zack on a 3-pointer by Khalid Lewis. But when the Explorers’ Jordan Price missed another 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining, the Wildcats had their final chance.
They were ready for this. In a near-empty Belk Arena on Monday, the Wildcats went through several late-game scenarios. While most of them ended with a player shooting a 3-pointer, a positive outlook was set.
“It gave us the attitude we needed,” said Wildcats coach Bob McKillop.
After rebounding Price’s miss, Gibbs pushed the ball upcourt. With the Davidson coaching staff electing not to take a timeout, Gibbs passed to guard Brian Sullivan, who found Kalinoski. His layup went high over Wright’s outstreched arms.
“Coach always tells us to shoot it high because it’s got a better chance of going in,” Kalinoski said.
It was the most unlikely of victories. The Explorers, with size advantages at every position, pounded the ball inside early and often, going up 33-15 with 6:52 left in the first half. La Salle, with 6-foot-11 center Steve Zack scoring a career-high 24 points and 6-8 Wright scoring 19, eventually outscored the Wildcats 40-20 in the paint. The Explorers led for nearly 39 minutes.
Davidson compounded its problems by shooting just 38.7 percent from the field and going 5 of 13 from the free-throw line.
Gibbs’ 22 points led the Wildcats, with Kalinoski scoring 18. Barham (12 points) and freshman Peyton Aldridge both had eight rebounds.
“I’m still shocked to have performances like we had today,” said McKillop. “These guys will forever be shocking me with how poised they are, how selfless they are and how team-oriented they are.”