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USF Dons can’t finish upset bid against No. 5 Gonzaga

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San Francisco point guard Frankie Ferrari drives against No. 5 Gonzaga on Jan. 12, 2019. (Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner)

UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO — University of San Francisco redshirt sophomore guard Charles Minlend carried a 4.5 grade point average through high school — all four of them he went to. He has a 3.9 now. Senior Nate Renfro has a 4.0. Neither are used to failing.

Despite eight lead changes and 15 ties over the first 36 minutes in a nationally-televised game at home against No. 5 Gonzaga on Saturday night, the Dons couldn’t finish.

San Francisco all but proved it’s a Tournament team — possibly for the first time in 21 years — but both Renfro and Minlend were stone-faced after the 96-83 loss. They had a chance to win with 3:50 left. They didn’t. That was all that mattered to them.

“There’s no real moral victory,” Renfro said. “People are going to pat us on the back and tell us we did a great job competing with the No. 5 team in the country, but we feel like we’ve trained hard … we were right there. It’s tough not to close that out. We had a chance with three minutes and 50 seconds left. We just gave them shots at the end.”

Gonzaga (16-2, 3-0 in WCC) has now won 15 in a row against the Dons, but none, perhaps, were more painful than Saturday. Against a team that’s won its last five games by at least 31 points — and three by 43 or more — San Francisco held the lead for 2:15, and held it with 3:50 left in regulation.

“We’ve been doing this, and people noticed it a lot more because it was Gonzaga,” said head coach Kyle Smith. “Last year, it started with beating Nevada, who’s every bit as good as this team, or probably in the conversation. St. Mary’s last year, and beating St. Mary’s this year, I think they’re going to do really well. It’s good. Hopefully, San Francisco belongs.”

Whether the Dons belong in the ranks of the top teams in the land was a question posed to Smith, Renfro and Minlend. Minlend, who finished with 14 points on 6-of-16 shooting, raised his hand.

“We were saying this before: We don’t really play to compete with teams,” Minlend said. “The goal is to win. We think we can compete with anybody, so we didn’t really prove anything to ourselves. I think when we get the win, we’ll be more satisfied about that.”

After trailing by as many as 10 in the first half, the Dons headed into halftime on a tear-drop lay-up by redshirt senior point guard Frankie Ferrari, which tied the game at 37-37 and capped a 16-6 run during which San Francisco went 7-of-12 from the field.

“We talked about it before, you’re going to get up, they’re going to give you a shot, and they keep swinging,” Smith said. “You’re going to take them, and you’ve got to fight back, and we just didn’t have enough there at the end.”

San Francisco (14-3, 2-1) was out-rebounded just 41-38, held the edge in second-chance points (25-21) and had a comparable bench performance (16 points to the Bulldogs’ 19), but couldn’t overcome a poor second half shooting, going just 13-of-36 from the field.

“They hit some shots and we didn’t,” Renfro said, flatly.

The Bulldogs got up by six in the first four minutes of the second half, but with 14:28 to go in regulation, Killian Tillie — the hero of last year’s Tournament run for the Bulldogs — threw down Renfro going for a rebound. He was charged with a Flagrant 1, as McCarthy hit one of two free throws, bringing San Francisco within three, down 52-49. Another Ferrari tear-drop lay-up would get the Dons within one.

The Bulldogs pulled away again, only for a Renfro three in front of his own bench with 11:47 to go to bring San Francisco to within two, down 60-58. The Dons, at that point, held a 30-26 rebounding advantage.

From 10:50 to 9:10, Ferrari scored eight points and hit a pair of 3-pointers, after missing his first five attempts.

After a Jordan Ratinho foul sent Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins to the line for two, Ferrari responded with a three from the top of the arc to get the Dons within one, down 66-65, and then he hit another moments later to tie things at 68-68. A pair of free throw makes from Remu Raitanen tied the game at 70-70 with just over nine minutes to go.

Then, with 6:55 left in regulation, Tillie — who hit 10 of 11 against San Francisco in last year’s WCC Tournament semifinal blowout — fouled Lull under the basket trying to go for a rebound. It was Tillie’s fifth, sending him to the bench, as Lull hit a pair of free throws to tie the game at 72.

The trouble was, the Dons, too, were dealing with foul trouble. McCarthy, Lull and Renfro each had four. With 6-foot-9 sophomore Taavi Jurkatamm — who Smith had hoped to use as a lengthy defender to counter the Bulldogs’ three athletic 6-foot-8-plus forwards (Rui Hachimura, Tillie and Clarke) — out due to a concussion, there weren’t many options.

“We were playing lineups we hadn’t played a bunch of, and I was really proud, we had Remu, Dzmitry [Ryuny] and Nate out there, and it was tie game, like, 70-70, and [we were] buying time, and doing a good job. I know there were a lot of possessions with them. We put the ball inside, they put the ball inside. I was concerned about the foul issues … We could have used another 6-10, long-armed guy there to help defend the rim.”

With the Gonzaga fans in attendance chanting “WE ARE … G-U!”, Ferrari drew a foul on Clarke on a 3-point shot fake on the right wing. It was Clarke’s fourth. Ferrari hit all three freebies with 5:24 to go, giving the Dons a 75-74 lead — their first since 14:31 in the first.

Ferrari — who watched from the stands with his brother as the Dons beat Gonzaga three years in a row during his adolescence — shot 7-of-15 from the floor with a team-high 21 points, dishing out four assists and turning the ball over just once in 39 minutes on the floor.

“He really gave us a chance to win the game,” Smith said. “That little stretch there in the second half, we were in such foul trouble, there were a couple possessions where I wish we could have given him a blow. It’s hard to go a full 20 minutes against those guys, but he’s definitely our leader out there and keeps us organized, gives us a lot of confidence, a lot of courage.”

The lead he gave San Francisco was all-too-brief, as Josh Perkins hit a left elbow jumper to put the Bulldogs up by one with five minutes to go.

After only two lead changes in the first 32:06 of the game, San Francisco and Gonzaga had traded leads four times over the span of just over four minutes, going into the under-four time out tied at 79-79 on a Ferrari jumper in the paint. San Francisco would take the lead with a pair of free throws by Jimbo Lull with 3:50 left, but a jumper from Clarke, a spot-up three by Zach Norvell Jr. and a three from Geno Crandall, to put the Dons down by six with 2:13 to go.

The Bulldogs would go on an 9-2 run to end the game, and got a huge block from Clarke — who scored a game-high 24 — on a Renfro dunk attempt with 1:07 to go, as Gonzaga took its largest lead up to that point, up 91-83.

Then, San Francisco could only watch as a Ratinho 3-pointer was blocked, leading to a Perkins-to-Rui Hachimura run-out and a one-handed dunk with 7.1 seconds left for the final score.

The Dons now have 13 more conference games, and the WCC Tournament, to earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998.

“We’ll just keep fighting, keep working at it,” Smith said. “I think we’re ahead of schedule. These guys don’t.”

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