University of San Francisco forward Nate Renfro drives against Killian Tillie during a game on Jan. 12, 2019 at War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center. (Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner)

Bernstein: USF may be in line for a Tournament appearance, but loss to Gonzaga will sting

All Gonzaga needed to do in the waning seconds of its 96-83 win over the University of San Francisco on Saturday night was run out the clock. Instead, guard Josh Perkins threw an alley-oop pass to forward Brandon Clarke, who took a hard foul as he dunked.

Neither team appeared pleased with the sequence, the Dons likely not appreciating the flashy move in an already-decided game, and the Bulldogs upset at Clarke being undercut on his way up for the slam.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, the Dons (14-3) can view the play as another sign post in their dramatic turnaround under coach Kyle Smith. It meant No. 5 Gonzaga, which has long looked down upon the Dons, had been genuinely pushed to its limits and felt the need to make a statement.

Further proof something is different on The Hilltop: USF didn’t claim a moral victory afterward, even though it could have taken plenty of positives from the way it stuck around against a team that took down Duke earlier this season.

“We don’t really play to compete with teams,” guard Charles Minlend Jr. said. “The goal is to win. We think we can compete with anybody, so we didn’t really prove anything to ourselves. When we get a win [over them], then we’ll be more satisfied.”

San Francisco focused on executing within its means whenever Gonzaga flashed its next-level athleticism, something the program had struggled with in prior years. There were moments the Dons could have been shell shocked, like when Minlend spun from the baseline in the first half for what appeared to be an easy layup opportunity only to be denied at the rim by Rui Hachimura, or when Gonzaga scored on five straight possessions midway through the second half to take a 63-58 lead. But, San Francisco kept patient on offense, only losing composure when Gonzaga’s 17-2 run in the final two minutes sank their upset bid.

Smith said USF learned how to withstand blows from favored teams last year, and was ready for the Bulldogs this time around. The Dons played Gonzaga close in both regular season meetings in 2017-18, losing 75-65 and 82-73. They also beat tournament-bound Nevada in nonconference play that campaign, which Smith said was instrumental in building confidence.

With a recent win over perennial WCC contender St. Mary’s and a four-point loss to No. 16 Buffalo this year, the Dons have certainly shown they can make a play at the NCAA Tournament. But like Minlend told reporters, the objective this season has not been to almost accomplish things, but rather to actually make March Madness, a feat that might require beating Gonzaga in Spokane on Feb. 7 — or during a potential WCC Tournament clash — after falling short this past weekend. It would also require USF not suffering a letdown in its upcoming game against Pacific on Thursday.

Right now, the Dons are ranked No. 43 in the NET rankings used by the selection committee, and they’re listed at No. 45 on KenPom and No. 79 by RPI. Those numbers would likely place them in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament bid if they continue playing at this level, but they could be susceptible to a snub from the committee if they don’t secure a marquee win.

Last year, St. Mary’s went 28-5 but missed the NCAA Tournament after losing to BYU in the conference tournament.

So here’s the cruel deal moving forward: If Gonzaga dominates USF later this season in Spokane, and USF winds up missing the Big Dance, the Dons will surely remember not finishing strong against the Bulldogs, sign posts and positivity be damned.

“It’s tough not to close that out,” forward Nate Renfro said. “We had a chance.”

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