The University of San Francisco men’s basketball team had been rolling this season, until hitting three-game losing skid — all on the road — dealt a serious blow to their postseason aspirations. The slide started against a physical San Diego team, then followed the Dons to Moraga in a decisive loss t0 St. Mary’s, and finally to Spokane, where they were blown out by a No.4 Gonzaga team they had taken to the brink a month before in San Francisco.
After a stretch that head coach Kyle Smith said would show the team who it really was, the Dons’ once-promising NCAA Tournament hopes took massive hits with losses to the Toreros and the Gaels — who were blown out by 48 points by the Bulldogs — and Smith finally had enough.
“I did something I rarely do,” Smith said. “I kind of snapped on them before shootaround. There was some stuff bubbling up. I said, ‘We’ve got to be ready to fight.’ Our guys did.”
Needing a get-right win, San Francisco struggled early against its oldest rival in Santa Clara, allowing Canadian forward Josip Vrankic to seemingly score at will. Finally, after a wild sequence with a minute and a half to go, Jimbo Lull — who scored a team-high 16 points — and the Dons were able to take advantage of a Vrankic miscue, and finish off a 78-72 win, allowing them to re-set for the final six conference games.
“We got a couple leads, and they just kept coming back, and then we just kind of hung in, in the end,” Smith said. “Really proud of our guys.”
After a Charles Minlend three upped the lead to 15 with under 10 minutes to go, polishing off a 22-8 run during which San Francisco held the Broncos to just 3-of-10 shooting, the Dons saw that lead shrink to as little as four twice in the next four minutes.
“We were a little frazzled,” Smith said. “That can happen when you’ve lost three in a row, but Jimbo’s bucket gave us a great chance.”
Vrankic then coughed the ball up it up in the lane to senior co-captain Nate Renfro, who pushed it up to fellow senior co-captain Frankie Ferrari, who swung it to Jordan Ratinho for three. The junior wing couldn’t get it to fall, but Renfro was there for the rebound, shoveling it to Lull for a kiss off the glass and giving the Dons a six-point lead, 69-63.
“They’ve been harping on me to get stronger, and more physical in the post, so that’s what I’m trying to do,” Lull said. “I got the ball, and I just went up strong.”
The bucket, Smith said, was “absolutely” the biggest in the game.
“He grew up big-time, there,” Smith said.
The next defensive stand, up by eight, the Dons (18-6, 6-4) drew Caruso’s fifth personal foul, knocking him and his 10 points out of the game. Ferrari then went to the line for a pair of foul shots, and made both, pushing the lead back to 10 at 73-63 with under 50 seconds to go.
While Santa Clara (13-12, 5-6 in WCC) depended heavily game-high scorer Vrankic (who shot 8-of-12 for 24 points and added 15 rebounds), San Francisco spread the ball around, so much so that all but one of the nine Dons who played scored at least three points. Four San Francisco scorers tallied double-digit points, including Lull on 6-of-8 shooting, Minlend (6-of-10 for 14), Ferrari (14 points, 10-of-11 at the free throw line) and Renfro (11 on 4-of-8).
The get-well win was far from an easy one for San Francisco, which only started to look like the team that won 12 of its first 13 games this season in the final minutes. The Dons fell down early 9-4, before they saw members of the last Dons team to make the NCAA Tournament — M.J. Nodilo, Damian Cantrell, Hakeem Ward, Lyryan Russell and Jamal Cobbs — recognized at half court.
San Francisco, which started the game 2-of-5, hit six of their next 12, but couldn’t stretch the lead larger than four.
A Ratinho 3-pointer with 6:42 left in the first gave San Francisco that four-point lead, and served as the 3-point sniper’s first triple since a 22-point win over Portland at home on Jan. 24 — coincidentally the last time the Dons had won. Since his late three to give the Dons a 23-point lead against the Pilots, he’d gone 0-for-8 from beyond the arc.
That 3-pointer moved him into third on the program’s all-time rolls for career 3-pointers with 186, and he soon added to that with 1:04 to go to keep the Broncos at arms length and put San Francisco up 35-31.
“Jordan’s pretty consistent, and a lot of teams chase him off the three,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who’s a little unselfish … to a fault sometimes. I think that group can be that way. But, he’s a fighter. He’s a winner. We believe in him.”
Some tenacious end-of-half defense forced a wild shot from Tahj Eaddy, keeping the lead at three, but after just one lead change and three ties in the first half, the two teams swapped leads four times in the first eight minutes of the second.
Back-to-back empty possessions by Santa Clara, combined with a two-handed flush from Matt McCarthy and a baseline lay-up by freshman Jamaree Bouyea swelled the lead to seven, and then a three from the top of the arc by senior Nate Renfro upped that to 10 with 11:50 to go in regulation.
“Santa Clara’s good,” Smith said. “I watched three films on them, and I was like, ‘Doggone it, these guys are good,’ and I know they’re well-coached. A little angst is good, sometimes.”
The Dons struggled on the boards, being out-rebounded 40-26 —something Smith knew would be an issue.
“One of the assistant coaches was going over the scout, and he said, ‘We have the advantage rebounding,’ and I said, ‘Stop,'” Smith said of his outburst on Saturday morning. “‘Don’t say that. That’s insane.’ I kind of blacked out for a second, because I’d just watched the film. They’re going off their analytics, and I’m Mr. Analytics. I said, ‘Listen, these guys are long, they’re physical,’ and we didn’t respond there.”
The Dons, though, started the second half shooting 8-of-13 from the field, while Santa Clara, which shot an already-poor 40.6 percent before the break, went just 3-of-10 as San Francisco ratcheted up their physicality on the defensive end. On the night, the Broncos managed to shoot 45.6 percent from the field (and 52 percent in the second half after their early struggles), but San Francisco was able to withstand the late-game barrage.