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What you need to know after the Dons advanced to the CBI championship

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Frankie Ferrari led the Dons into the CBI finals on Thursday night. (Courtesy Christina Leung/USF Athletics)

WAR MEMORIAL GYM — For the second time in as many games, the University of San Francisco avoided a late letdown, winning 65-62 over Campbell on Thursday to secure a berth in the College Basketball Invitational finals.

On a night when the Dons earned the chance to play for the CBI title in a best-of-three series, here’s what you need to know…

This game ended in bizarre fashion. Over the final three-minutes-and-twenty-five seconds, the Dons managed a lone point, watching an eight-point lead slip to three before Matt McCarthy hit a free throw with 8.3 seconds to go.

Chase Foster missed a pair of free throws with 1.8 seconds left — meaning the Dons whiffed four of their final five — and then confusion ensued.

The Campbell Fighting Camels got the rebound and then called timeout with half a second. After a long conference, the referees determined that time had actually run out and the Dons were declared winners.

“Coach [Kevin] McGeehan was all bitter and pissed because no one knew that rule,” Smith said. “I feel bad.”

The officials later explained that the clock should have begun as soon as the ball hit the court after the missed free throw.

“Funky ending to a game,” Smith said. “But they competed hard. We competed hard. There’s some fatigue that sets in and I was really happy for our guys.”

Up next the Dons host North Texas on Monday night. With the win, USF now faces the Green Men in the championship series. Game 2 is at UNT Coliseum in Denton, Texas on March. Game 3, if needed would be back at War Memorial two days after that. Frankie Ferrari, the Dons on-floor general, said this is the stage Smith has been preparing his team for.

“Coach kind of preached it,” Ferrari explained. “He wants us to learn how to play well in March and get used to close games.

The Dons have won the first three CBI games by a combined margin of 12 points.

“I’m actually glad we’ve had three closes games the past three games because we’ve learned how to win close,” Ferrari said. “Usually in March it’s not typically easy at this time.”

Ferrari’s outing was a microcosm of the night. The Dons star guard was feeling it early, knocking down his first four 3-pointers and 7 of 8 shots overall.  Ferrari had 13 points at the break, carrying the Dons to a 39-37 advantage. As a group, USF shot 60 percent (15-for-25) and 55 percent (6-for-11) on 3-pointers in the opening half.

“It’s big because it gives you a little cushion and a little confidence,” Ferrari said of the fast start.

Ferrari ended up pacing the team with 18 points. The Dons fell off down the stretch, closing the evening 24-for-50 from the field and 9-for-24 from beyond the arc, but did just enough.

“We did kind of cool down — or I did personally — down the stretch,” Ferrari added. “Sometimes it happens, but our defense really stepped up.”

Nate Renfro was the defensive difference maker. Like he has all season, the junior forward delivered momentum-shifting blocks when it mattered most. Renfro’s third and final rejection came with 3:07 to go, helping to preserve what was then a 64-55 advantage.

Renfro makes a habit of punctuating his emphatic blocks with prolonged staredowns of his opponents.

“I never noticed them,” Smith said, when asked about the possibility of Renfro incurring a technical.

“But he’s been warned on it once. I’ll have to talk to him about it. But he gives a little Dikembe [Mutombo finger wag], does he?”

kbuscheck@sfexaminer.com

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