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University of San Francisco, aiming for first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than two decades, hosts No. 5 Gonzaga

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University of San Francisco Dons senior Nate Renfro goes up for a dunk during the second half of a game against Cal State Fullerton at War Memorial Gym on Dec. 16, 2018. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

Frankie Ferrari remembers sitting in the stands with his brother, Ralph, at War Memorial Gym, when their friend, Angelo Caloiaro, sunk a 3-pointer with 32.8 seconds left to upset then-No. 13 Gonzaga on Jan. 30, 2010.

He remembers Caloiaro’s performance. He remembers Dior Lowhorn, who hit three straight 3-pointers in overtime. He also remembers that he didn’t really want to rush xthe court for the University of San Francisco’s first win in 10 tries against the Bulldogs. He just watched the pandemonium.

“I kind of tried to stay out of it,” said Frankie, now the Dons’ point guard and senior co-captain. “We hung back, but we sure were here for a lot of the games.”

Ferrari, a Burlingame native, knows the history of the Gonzaga-San Francisco rivalry. He remembers the three straight years with wins over the Bulldogs, from 2010 to 2012, but he also remembers last year’s West Coast Conference semifinal blowout in Las Vegas, which came after two closely-played regular-season contests. Now, the Bulldogs, ranked No. 5 in the country, return to San Francisco for the first of two regular-season match-ups this Saturday at 7 p.m. Ferrari won’t let himself imagine a win.

“It would be great just to be able to beat a team at home in an environment like that, it would be awesome, [but] I think it’s hard for me to get into that,” Ferrari said.

This isn’t the last game against Gonzaga this year, Ferrari noted. It’s the first of what could be as many as three. There are still 14 other West Coast Conference games left, and then the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

A win would be massive, and even playing the Bulldogs close would be impressive, but the Dons lost by 10 and nine points to them in two regular-season meetings last year, and were then flattened, 88-60, in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament last March. In that game, they trailed by as many as 33. Head coach Kyle Smith has blacked that game out.

“We need to win,” said Ferrari’s senior co-captain Nate Renfro. “The losses that we’ve had, we played Buffalo and they were a ranked team, and we were just upset. We were there. We should have won that game. We expect to play them close, and even give ourselves a chance to win. We need to dig into that. If we’re there, it’ll be a little heartbreaking to come so close.”

The Dons are older than in their last clash with the Bulldogs, and they have the services of scorer Charles Minlend Jr., who redshirted with a shoulder injury. While Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have been the darlings of the mid-major world for the better part of the past two decades, San Francisco, under Smith, has emerged as a contender at 14-2. A win, Smith said, would only mean that San Francisco has arrived ahead-of-schedule.

“They’ve been No. 1 in the country,” Smith said. “I don’t want to honestly look you in the eye and say, ‘We should be beating them,’ but it’ll be a great challenge for our guys.”

With a win already over St. Mary’s, and a close loss to then-No. 21 Buffalo, Smith’s stated goal at the end of last season — making the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 1998 — is very much a reality. A win over the Bulldogs would certainly work in favor of that ambition.

History, though, is working against the Dons. The last time they beat a top-10 team was Dec. 29, 1981, when they downed No. 2 Wichita State, 84-74 in Honolulu. San Francisco was ranked No. 6 at the time.

The Bulldogs are the No. 1 offense in the nation, according to KenPom.com, and the No. 51 defense. For reference, the Bulls, to whom the Dons lost 85-81 on Dec. 1, have the No. 53 defense.

San Francisco is limited, offensively, owning the No. 77 offense in the nation, sitting fifth out of 10 WCC teams in shooting percentage (47.4) and shooting 33.6 percent from 3-point land (eighth in the WCC). Much of their offense has come from the jump shooting of Ferrari, Jordan Ratinho and Renfro, but more dependably from the low post.

Both forward Matt McCarthy (10.1 ppg) and center Jimbo Lull (8.9 ppg) are shooting over 60 percent from the floor, and create mis-matches on offense for Gonzaga.

With Lull — whose offseason training included literally running up the granite faces of mountains (Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire, to be specific) — more athletic and more confident, will be more of a threat on offense than last year. While he’s now more capable of defending down low, defending the Bulldogs will still be a major challenge.

Gonzaga relies on 6-foot-8 Brandon Clarke, 6-foot-8 Rui Hachimura and 6-foot-10 phenom Killian Tillie.

Tillie, a junior out of France, played his first game this season last Saturday, after recovering from ankle surgery that cost him the first 15 games. Whatever rust he has should be shaken off by the time he and the Bulldogs arrive in San Francisco, and that’s a dangerous prospect for the Dons, because he’ll be added to a diverse and versatile scoring punch that has four players averaging in double figures, including Zach Norvell Jr. (16.2 ppg), guard Josh Perkins (10.4 ppg), Clarke and Hachimura.

Corey Kispert is also a dangerous shooter, who, along with Norvell and Perkins, can speed up the game in transition.

“Clarke is so quick, Hachimura’s so quick, they’re really playing three forwards or you could say five guards, a little bit,” Smith said. “Hachimura, they’ll bring it in transition, they’re just very much like Draymond Green. Clarke is that kind of defender, blocks everything, shoots quick, bouncy, Hachimura will just rip the thing right down the middle of the court. We usually pick up the ball with our guards, and it’s a freight train coming at you.”

Renfro, who Smith called one of — if not the — best athletes in the conference, will likely be assigned to deal with Tillie, who went 10-of-11 in last year’s conference semifinal en route to a 28-for-36 shooting performance in the WCC Tournament.

While Ferrari was a firm ‘no comment’ when asked whether he’d want the fans to storm the court should the Dons manage a win — the students are on winter break, so that may put a damper on things — Renfro didn’t do much to suppress a smile.

“It’d be great,” he said. “It kind of depends on the dynamic of the game a little bit, but like I said, we’re not quite there yet. We haven’t proven anything yet. We want to get to that level where it’s just another win for us. We have to prove that.”

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