After scaling many a mountain during the 1994-95 basketball season, LaSalle finally found one too steep to climb.
Nationally-ranked Abraham Lincoln of New York City handed the Explorers their first loss Friday afternoon, 61-44, in the Class A semifinal of the New York State Federation Tournament before more than 2,000 fans at the Civic Center.
The Rail Splitters (25-3), ranked No. 1 in the state and 13th in the USA Today national poll, will play Christ The King of New York City for the title tonight at 9.
LaSalle's season ends at 26-1, but the second-ranked team in state Class A poll went down swinging. Playing without second-leading scorer Terry Rich, the Explorers stayed with Lincoln for three quarters before a devasting 25-4 run midway through the final stanza settled it.
"Sure we're small, but the bottom line is we came to play," LaSalle coach Pat Monti said. "I felt we had the game right where we wanted it. We had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, but I just hate the way we played the last quarter. I don't think we gave up. I just think we ran out of gas. We had no answers when we felt behind."
Monti wondered how his team would react to playing such a highly touted team. He got his answer right away.
The Explorers shot 36.2 percent from the field (17 of 47) and threw away too many fast break opportunities.
"I don't want to make any excuses because Lincoln High is definitely better than LaSalle," Monti. "But I'm not so sure they won the game because they were so good today. I think they might have got in the position they did because we were pretty bad."
Indeed, this was not a LaSalle-like performance as as no player reached double figures in scoring.
The leading scorers were Tim Winn and Carlos Davis with 9 each, however Winn's total was 14 below his average. The junior guard made only 4 of 15 shots from the field, 1 for 7 on three-pointers, and went scoreless in the second half.
Point guard Jody Crymes also struggled, scoring five points and making several uncharacteristic miscues.
"We made a few mental errors and missed a couple of shots, but that's how it goes sometimes," said Crymes. "Sometimes, the best gets beat. Sometimes the team that's supposed to win loses. It's all about keeping your head up and moving on."
No one in the LaSalle camp wanted to make an issue of it, but the Explorers could have used Rich, who is in bed recovering from tonsillitis and strep throat.
Rich is possibly the team's swiftest player in the open court but more importantly, he brings a fiery attitude LaSalle lacked on Friday.
"It's not just his 16 points a game," Monti said. "He's huge on loose balls and he's unbelievable in transition. Now, you can key on Crymes and Winn. Whichever one gets to you, you can take the other one away. You can't do that when Rich is here."
"We missed the little things," Winn added. "He can make that third pass and we wouldn't have been standing around as much. Terry can do what Jody and I can do, so we would have had a lot more movement. We would have taken better shots."
One aspect of LaSalle's game that clicked was the defense.
Thanks primarily to Winn's ball-hawking, All-American and national player of the year Stephon Marbury was never able to fully display his many-splendored talents.
The 6-foot-2, Georgia Tech-bound guard was a non-factor. He scored just 12 points (on 4 of 10 shots) with the last four coming when the game was decided.
"He's (Winn) very quick and a great defender," Marbury said while being mobbed by autograph seekers. "He stayed in my face the whole time. He gets his team involved in the game on offense, too. He's going to be a great one."
The same energy used to contain Marbury was needed against shooting guard Gerard Hawkins, who pumped in season-high 25 points. Forward Clyde Hawkins added 18 points.
"In games like this, you need someone else to step up," Lincoln coach Bobby Hartstein said. "Gerard and Clyde did a great job."
It was Hawkins and Ellis who kept Lincoln afloat early when the team seemed at a loss on how to attack LaSalle.
The Explorers led, 9-7, after the first quarter, but Hawkins and Ellis combined for 13 points in the second quarter as Lincoln pulled ahead for good, 22-18, at halftime.
"We weren't frustrated, they just came out hungry," Marbury said of LaSalle. "They had no fear. They just came out and played their game. They didn't care about our size."
However, Lincoln's size did take effect in the second half as Ellis (8 rebounds) and 6-7 center Jamel Thomas (12 rebounds) controlled the boards and cut off LaSalle's penetration.
There was still life in LaSalle when John Rhoat's two free throws cut the deficit to 34-33 early in the fourth quarter.
"We were confident we could play with them and we showed that until the beginning of the fourth," Winn said. "We weren't intimidated at all."
But a Hawkins layup capped an 11-2 spurt to put the Rail Splitters up, 45-35, with 4:13 left and Lincoln continued to pull away.