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USF Dons basketball remains undefeated, set to square off with Buffalo in Ireland

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San Francisco’s Jimbo Lull with Stephen F. Austin’s Karl Nicholas during Friday afternoons game in the Goliath bracket of the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic at the SSE Arena, Belfast. (Photo by William Cherry/Presseye)

As the University of San Francisco dons huddled in the North Texas visitor’s locker room after losing last year’s CBI final, seniors cried, everybody hugged. Charles Minlend Jr., clad in sweats, right arm finally out of a sling following shoulder surgery, looked around the room.

“It was one of those weird moments for me, because I wasn’t even playing, and I felt awful after we lost. I didn’t think that anyone would care as much as me, and they were caring just as much, if not more, than I was,” Minlend said. “We were a really close team before, but after that happened, it was a really intense moment for us … We were with each other. After that, we were really tight.”

The Dons lost just two seniors from that 22-17 team, and, after he recovered from a torn right labrum, added Minlend back to the mix this year, joining forces with 3-point sniper Jordan Ratinho. Behind 19 points from Ratinho and 16 from Minlend, San Francisco scored a 76-58 win over Stephen F. Austin on Friday in the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic at SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland, moving to 7-0 for the first time in 37 years.

The Dons remain among the dwindling group of college basketball unbeatens, which now numbers 18. Three of those teams come from the West Coast Conference, including Loyola Marymount and No. 1 Gonzaga.

“This group has some special leaders,” said head coach Kyle Smith. “That’s what it takes to get to that level. It takes leadership and caring for one another. We’ve got that.”

One of those leaders is All-WCC point guard Frankie Ferrari. The senior out of Burlingame dished out nine of the Dons’ season-high-tying 21 assists on 30 field goals (his fifth game with five or more assists), with only two turnovers against the Lumberjacks. One of four San Francisco shooters in double figures, Ferrari scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half alone, along with five assists.

That effort helped the Dons expand what was a slim three-point halftime lead, after out-shooting the Lumberjacks 51.7 percent to 46.7 percent before the break. Coming out of the locker room, Ferrari hit four of seven shots from the field, including 2-of-5 from 3-point range, as Minlend went 5-for-7 from the field and picked up two steals.

Evan as Ratinho was limited to five of his team-high 19 points after the half, San Francisco locked down defensively, grabbing 16 defensive rebounds and holding Stephen F. Austin to 10-of-28 from the field and 1-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc for just 24 points.

While center Matt McCarthy played just 16 minutes due to foul trouble, he put up 11 points and three rebounds and did serious work on the inside, aided by Nate Renfro (7 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks), and seven-footer Jimbo Lull. The trio made scoring down low a chore, especially in the second half. The Lumberjacks scored 34 of their 58 points in the paint, but just 14 of those came in the second 20 minutes.

On the day, the Dons held Stephen F. Austin to eight offensive rebounds — nearly 3.5 less than their season average — and just eight second-chance points.

“They’re one of the better offensive rebounding teams, and they also put a lot of pressure on the ball,” Smith said. “Our guys did a great job handling it.”

San Francisco avoided pressure by keeping the ball moving, with Ferrari driving and kicking, and four different players hitting 3-pointers. Ratinho shot 7-of-13 from the field and 5-of-10 from 3-point range, but also added four assists, while Ferrari himself went 5-of-9 and 2-of-6 from beyond the arc. Minlend finished 7-of-13, with three rebounds and a pair of steals, with both of those coming in the second half.

After their sixth win by 18 or more points this season, the Dons will now face No. 21 Buffalo in the championship round of the Classic. The Bulls are also one of the remaining undefeateds.

Last season, then-No. 13-seed Buffalo blasted No. 4-seed Arizona 89-68 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to No. 5-seed Kentucky, 95-75 in the second round.

“We’re excited about that,” Smith said. “Everyone saw what Buffalo did last year. Pretty special. Arizona’s a pretty good program, and they beat them. We’ve got a good group of seniors, and we’ll be really excited to compete against a team like that.”

That game is slated for a 3:30 p.m. local time/7:30 a.m. Pacific tip. It will be televised on CBS Sports Network with Dave Ryan on the call.

Notebook:

Jordan Ratinho’s 19 points gives him gives him 763 for his career. At his current pace of 12.1 ppg he will eclipse 1,000-point mark later this season,  becoming 36th player in school history to do so.

The Dons shot better than 50.0 percent for the fourth time this season and first time since the LIU-Brooklyn game. San Francisco is shooting 49.2 percent for the season, tied for 40th in the nation.

Ferrari now has a season-long assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.11 (46 assists, 9 turnovers), good for 13th in the NCAA.

The 7-0 start for the Dons is the best since they started the 1981-82 season 10-0. Prior to the that, the last 7-0 start or better came in the 1979-80 season, when head coach Don Belluomini led USF to a 9-0 run.

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