PHILADELPHIA -- The table was set for Loyola College to post its biggest basketball victory in several years last night, but the Greyhounds left untouched an opportunity to upset La Salle.
The NBA draft, preseason turmoil, sick call and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were on Loyola's side at the Philadelphia Civic Center, but La Salle had too much Doug Overton and pulled away for a 75-68 victory over the Greyhounds.
La Salle (1-0) is favored to win its fourth straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. Loyola (1-1) was the worst team in the MAAC a year ago, when it was 4-24 overall, but the distance between the teams has shortened considerably since last March, when the Explorers completed a 30-2 season by losing to Clemson in the NCAA tournament.
So much had transpired that Loyola found itself within a point of La Salle with 6:50 to play. That was as close as it got, because Loyola then went nearly seven minutes with only one basket.
"This was the one we could have had," Loyola coach Tom Schneider said. "I don't think any of our guys are satisfied with quote-unquote a moral victory. I hope we're past that stage. It's a very disappointing loss."
La Salle's biggest offseason trauma came when all-time leading scorer Lionel Simmons went to the Sacramento Kings as the seventh player picked in the NBA draft. In early October, starting guard and defensive specialist Randy Woods had a one-punch fight with Keith Morris, La Salle coach Speedy's son, and he is suspended until Dec. 22.
A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles concert here in late December was one reason last night's game was moved up and made the MAAC opener. As if Morris and company didn't have enough problems, Overton missed two weeks of practice because of an ankle injury, returning this week. Nonetheless, Overton was his usual brilliant self, playing the entire 40 minutes and getting a career-high 31 points.
"What a difference a year makes," Morris said. "When you take everything that has happened to us, we're happy to get this win. Doug isn't the only guy we've had injured, and there were some days in the gym when we had eight guys. That's a different Loyola team, and they've had much better preparation than we did."
With a two-week late-summer tour in Europe, two exhibitions and a season-opening win over George Washington, Schneider couldn't have asked for better preparation.
A different attitude was present late in a sloppy first half -- La Salle made one of its first nine shots -- when La Salle went on a 7-0 spurt to take a 30-21 lead with 2:14 left. Tracy Bergan and Kevin Green, Loyola's solid backcourt duo, stared down the run and made it 30-27 at the half.
"When it was 30-21, we probably could've packed it in," Schneider said.
Thirteen minutes into the second half, the Greyhounds realized they needed more seasoning. Green's free throws in the bonus situation made it 59-58 with 6:50 remaining. La Salle was in danger of having its 29-game MAAC win streak stopped, but the Greyhounds' offense unraveled. John Boney's lay-in off a Mike Wagner feed was their only field goal during a 6:59 span.
"We definitely have to be more intelligent," Bergan said. "That's partly my responsibility. I was in awe of Overton's leadership. He gets everyone involved in the offense. He's the best player in the MAAC."
A 6-foot-3 senior guard, Overton scored 11 straight points early in the second half, but was tentative at times because of a weak ankle. Five of his 11 baskets came from three-point range. Junior swingman Jack Hurd crammed 15 of his 20 into the second half, and junior center Milko Lieverst had 11 and a game-high 12 rebounds.
For Loyola, Green had 24 points and nine rebounds in a 40-minute stint and Bergan had 19 points. Freshman forward Jon Haggler had eight points and five rebounds off the bench, and senior center Wagner's nine rebounds helped the Greyhounds to a 45-39 edge on the boards.
"Someone rated us [he and Woods] as the third-best backcourt in the country," Overton said. "If that's the case, they must be fifth or sixth. Bergan showed me a lot of heart, and Green is a very underrated shooting guard."
If Loyola gained a little respect in Philadelphia and the MAAC last night, it could get much more in Baltimore with a good showing at the Beltway Classic at the Towson Center this weekend. It has been 13 games and nearly five years since the Greyhounds beat any of their Beltway Classic rivals, the last such success coming Dec. 21, 1985, against Towson State.