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Charles Minlend, San Francisco blast Cal 79-60 at Haas Pavilion

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Charles Minlend (14) of the University of San Francisco drives the lane against Cal on Dec. 5, 2018, at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif. (Chris Victorio – Special to S.F. Examiner)

BERKELEY — San Francisco guard Charles Minlend Jr. ducked under the basket to snag a rebound off a Jimbo Lull free throw miss. In one motion, he danced along the baseline and hit a delayed reverse lay-up under Cal forward Andre Kelly.

Minlend pumped his fist, and flashed his trademark smile. After missing a year with a torn right labrum, Minlend had secured the first double-double of his career, putting the Dons up by 26 with 5:46 to go.

“I think it was more of an exclamation point for us as a team,” Minlend said.

Minlend admitted to being curious as to how the Dons would come out, after Sunday’s 11-hour plane ride back from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they suffered their first loss of the season against No. 21 Buffalo. Not only did they beat the Bears — a Pac-12 opponent — for the first time since 1997, but they did it emphatically, scoring their seventh win by 18 or more points this season in a 79-60 romp.

“It wasn’t like we were coming against a bad team,” Minlend said. “We were coming back to play against a Pac-12 team … We’ve just got to keep going.”

With an 8-1 start this year — the best for the program in 37 years — the Dons have begun to make some national noise. The win was San Francisco’s first against Cal since Dec. 2, 1997 — Ben Braun eliminated what had been a near-annual game, and subsequent Bears coaches followed suit. That season, though, was coincidentally the last the Dons made the NCAA Tournament. On Dec. 22, they’ll face Stanford. Then they’ll have two tries at No. 1 Gonzaga to continue making their case for a tourney invite.

Beating a Pac-12 team — even one as moribund as the Bears — and falling by just four to the ranked Bulls, have caused the college basketball world to take notice. Third-year head coach Kyle Smith, an assistant under St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett from 2001-10, didn’t shy away from the discussion. He knew his veteran team — and Minlend — could handle it.

“It’s a little premature to talk about it, but our guys are into it, so might as well,” Smith said. “I think one big benefit, early on, it’s not as early now, but I think our league has close to five top-100 teams. The perception is that it’s Gonzaga, they’re No. 1, but San Diego’s really good, Loyola just lost their first game and won at Georgetown. There’s ample opportunities in league to keep making a statement.”

Minlend, who has made a statement of his own in ranking among the top 15 scorers in the West Coast Conference, scored a game-high 17 on 6-of-12 shooting with 11 rebounds, showing off his aggressive baseline game and cleaning up three of the Dons’ 14 offensive boards. He got going early with a up-and-under dunk on an in-bounds play, catching the rim as he came down.

“I didn’t realize I got that high,” Minlend said.

The redshirt sophomore and sophomore teammate Jamaree Bouyea — who finished with seven points, two assists and a key three — have a competition to see who finishes the season with the most dunks. The over-under for Minlend is nine. He’s already got six, including that one, which, yes, Bouyea counted.

Minlend — who, after missing a year due to injury, has taken to smiling and dancing all throughout warm-ups, and grinning widely after every time he gets knocked down — played with the selfless joy that’s been San Francisco’s trademark.

“I had a ton of energy before the game, more than I usually have,” Minlend said. “It was a great team effort, and we played with great energy, especially coming off a road trip out of the country.”

Senior point guard Frankie Ferrari dished out seven of the team’s 16 assists on 29 field goals. He was one of three Dons to have a multiple-assist night, and one of six players with a helper on the stat sheet.

“It’s the way we’ve been doing it — we’re a pretty selfless team,” Minlend said. “There have been games where people have really stepped up. Even if someone is having an off game, someone else steps up and no one’s upset. We always pick each other up.”

San Francisco out-classed the Bears in every major statistical category, including out-rebounding Cal 40-28, and shooting 49.2 percent to the Bears’ 38.8.

“I just felt like we had an advantage going into the game, if they were going to play smallish,” Smith said. “I thought we played to our strength. Our identity has been good, court-to-court defense as a team, and we’ve been really good on the glass. We take care of the ball. As long as we get shots, I think our second-shot offense wasn’t great over in Ireland, but we need to get back to that.”

The Dons scored 18 second-chance points, racked up 14 offensive rebounds and scored 20 points off of 12 Cal turnovers. San Francisco wasn’t very sharp early, though.

Despite having four offensive rebounds over the first four minutes to zero for the host Bears, the Dons — who hadn’t beaten the Bears at Haas Pavilion (then Harmon Gym) since Dec. 3, 1991, an 80-73 victory — couldn’t get much going on offense, going 2-of-6 from the field as the Bears built a 6-4 lead.

Then, after a Darius McNeill dunk, Ferrari drew a foul from McNeill, hitting both of his free throws. A steal by Nate Renfro ended with a Bouyea three, and San Francisco proceeded to rip off an 17-3 run.

The ball movement and defensive intensity ramped up during a frenetic 11-0 three-minute stretch. Matt McCarthy stripped Juhwan Harris-Dyson in the paint, then moved the ball up to Bouyea and Ferrari, before Ferrari pump faked a three in the left corner, stepped under his defender and found Jordan Ratinho wide open beyond the arc. Cal would have three turnovers in a 3:22 span.

The run featured just about everything that makes the Dons dangerous, including Minlend getting to the line, a Minlend floater where he seemed to pause in mid-air, a Minlend dunk, multiple Ferrari baseline kicks and Jimbo Lull bullying down low. They didn’t, however, have much from beyond the arc. Enter: Ratinho.

All alone now in fourth place on San Francisco’s all-time 3-point makes list, the junior out of Livermore had taken just three shots before halftime.

“I saw [Cal freshman] Matt Bradley play a lot in high school, and he was starting on him, and Matt can really score and get it going,” Smith said. “I know Jordan’s going to get shots, but I was just thinking, let’s make Matt earn it. I saw he only had three shots, but I don’t think Jordan or really anybody on this team worries about that stuff too much.”

Ratinho went 2-of-4 from three out of the break, as San Francisco opened the second half on an 10-3 run, highlighted by a Ratinho transition bucket off the catch from a no-look bounce pass by Ferrari. Ratinho would finish the half 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and held Bradley to just five points on 2-of-8 shooting in the second half.

The lead ballooned to as many as 29 in the second half, as Minlend eschewed wild three tries and instead went to the baseline, going 2-of-4 from the field and hitting 4-of-5 from the free throw line. He exited with just over three minutes to play, with the game well in-hand.

“We got beat by a veteran team that wanted it more than we did tonight,” said Bears head coach Wyking Jones. “We gave up 14 offensive rebounds. They just had more fight.”

The win on Wednesday was the second-largest win for San Francisco in the 77-game series, following a 23-point win in 1976.

The Dons have had to fight for recognition beyond their home city since last they faced Cal with any regularity. Over the last 20 years, they’ve also had to contend with a solid, established top-three in the West Coast Conference of Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU. Minlend, too, has had to fight for recognition, which is partially why he and San Francisco are a fit.

He currently leads the Dons in scoring with a 14.4 ppg scoring average, but was unrated as a recruit coming out of Concord First Assembly as a 17-year old senior (despite double-digit offers) and coming out of Fork Union Military Academy, where his father sent him because he wasn’t ready to bang with grown men.

Despite holding a 4.5 grade point average and good bloodlines — his father, Charles Sr., is the 10th-leading career rebounder all-time at St. John’s — Minlend had just four offers after leading the Blue Devils in scoring in his single year there.

Smith, who as the head coach at Columbia had seen Minlend 12 times playing for his unaffiliated AAU team, made Minlend his first recruit when he took the job at San Francisco. He offered Minlend in late April of 2016, and in early May, Minlend committed on his first and only visit.

Minlend’s first career double-double came against a team filled with three- and four-star players — top-150 players. He exited with 3:04 to go, his work done. He had more rebounds than any Cal player. The closest was Kelly, who had 17 points and nine rebounds.

“It’s a great feeling,” Minlend said. “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about it until somebody told me that I had nine rebounds or something.”

“Who did that?” Smith asked, in the postgame press conference, feigning incredulity that someone would dare tell Minlend his stats in the middle of the game. “Got to watch that. Always rebound, always rebound.”

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