University of San Francisco guard Charles Minlend slams home a dunk in the first half of the Dons' 83-61 win over Portland on Jan. 24, 2019. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

USF Dons basketball puts on a show in front of revitalized student section

Sitting behind the home bench with a group of friends, wearing a Kelley green giveaway t-shirt, University of San Francisco freshman Josh Andrada had the perfect vantage point for the Dons’ men’s basketball team’s 83-61 dismantling of the visiting Portland Pilots.

His friends had been to several games this season, but Adanna, a San Jose native, had yet to visit War Memorial Gym. Then, while home during winter break, he was watching ESPN, when he saw the Dons push then-No. 5 Gonzaga to the brink.

“I figured, I have to come,” Andrada said.

For a program that traditionally has had difficulty attracting even its own students, the Dons, in a weeknight game against the middling Pilots (7-14, 0-6 in WCC), played to a packed gym, with students reaching from the Fog Zone student section behind the bench, into the upper reaches in the rafters. In line for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years, the Dons aren’t wasting their opportunity to convert new fans.

“I was surprised,” said redshirt senior co-captain Frankie Ferrari. “We were guessing, the team. Gonzaga was 100 percent [capacity]. We had said between 65 and 75. The students, being back in school, came, which was cool.”

Ferrari — who came out of halftime to hit four straight 3-pointers — put on an encore performance after winning his first West Coast Conference Player of the Week Award last week. After fully recovering from strep throat, Ferrari went 7-of-10 from the floor and 4-of-6 from three, adding four assists to his 18 points.

Likewise, San Francisco — off to its best start since the 1976-77 season — didn’t disappoint, and came out with a spark against an inferior opponent.

“They read the newspaper, they’re 0-5 in league and the whole deal,” said head coach Kyle Smith. “You think it would be easy, but last year, I think we played them up there first, played really well up there, and won pretty comfortably on the road, then we had them three weeks later, and we escaped at home with a win, so we knew they were capable.”

The No. 42 team in the NCAA’s NET rankings was comprehensively dominant, seeing nine of 11 players score points, dishing out 17 assists on 30 made field goals, scoring 16 points off of 10 Pilots turnovers and shooting 54.5 percent (third-highest of the season), while holding Portland to just 3-of-14 from beyond the 3-point line, and 25-of-60 from the floor. Though the Dons were out-rebounded 38-35, they only committed six turnovers.

“Their guards are really quick, two of the quicker guards in the league, and I think we did a good job on those guys,” Smith said. “Defensively, we were really nails the first half. Rebounding was our little shortcoming, but then on the offensive end, we were really efficient and played well throughout the game. Frankie did a good job getting the ball where it needed to be, whether it was man or zone.”

After the Pilots got to within one with 15:06 to go in the half, the Dons went on a 20-6 run, punctuated by a put-back slam by Nate Renfro and tough, heady play in the low post by both Jimbo Lull and Matt McCarthy. Thanks to those three, San Francisco held a 28-10 advantage at halftime in points in the paint.

The Dons (17-3, 5-1) hit 13 of their first 20 shots, while Portland went just 8-of-20 and 0-for-4 from three, falling down 31-16 with six minutes to go in the period.

Sophomore guard Jamaree Bouyea then turned in a pair of back-to-back blocks, sending the ball into the stands, before putting the Dons up by 16 with a three from the top of the arc with 3:20 to go before halftime.

A breakaway crowd-pleasing jam by Charles Minlend off a pass from Ferrari put the Dons up 38-21, and then an outlet pass by McCarthy to Ferrari that went the length of the court ended with a Ferrari lay-in. The normally-humorless Ferrari even cracked a smile before yet another lay-up, as San Francisco went up by 21 headed into halftime.

“I was laughing because Nate was laughing at me because I didn’t throw the ball off the backboard for a dunk,” Ferrari said. “Honestly, when I caught the ball, I heard footsteps, and I thought somebody was going to try and block it, so I had to lay it up there quick. It ended up being Nate behind me.”

Ferrari drained three of his four straight of 3-pointers to start the second half, pushing the lead as high as 25, and was followed by a splash triple by Minlend on the left wing to make it 54-28, Dons, with 15:31 to go. At that point, San Francisco had hit 61.8 percent of their shots on the night (21-of-34). They didn’t lead by fewer than 20 points the rest of the night.

Minlend finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting and five rebounds, one of four Dons in double figures. Renfro scored 10 with five boards, Ferrari had his 18 and McCarthy led all scorers with a career-high 20.

“It’s easy playing with Frankie; I just stand under the rim and he passes it to me,” McCarthy said. “I just put them in.”

The Australian native was strong down low on both ends of the court, with a soft touch around the basket. He finished with 20 points in 20 minutes on a hyper-efficient 8-of-9 shooting and 4-of-5 at the line. He added five rebounds and three assists — second only to Ferrari — in his second strong performance in a row. Against BYU on Saturday, he shot 7-of-8 from the floor, pulled down seven rebounds and scored 14 points.

“We’ve got an all-league player that probably won’t get all-league,” Smith said. “It’s Matt and Jimbo. Mimbo. Or Jatt? Mimbo is nails. I think they were 28 [points] and eight [rebounds]. Played them together, probably 10, 12 possessions tonight … As you move forward, if we play in postseason, like we want to, being big and I think they can defend with any of those big bodies. Matt hit it on the head, in the pick-and-roll, they’re both tough. They’ve got good chemistry together. We’ve got to keep it going.”

With only four home games left in the season — Santa Clara (Feb. 9), Pepperdine (Feb. 14), San Diego (Feb. 28) and Loyola Marymount (March 2), students have precious few opportunities to see the Dons in person. After that, their best chance will be a trip to Las Vegas, where San Francisco figures to be the No. 2 seed in the WCC Tournament (March 7-12).

“It was good to see [the students] out tonight,” McCarthy said. “Hopefully, we keep that going, and get a good culture here.”

If the Dons don’t want to have to win that tournament to ensure their possible first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years, the next week and a half will be crucial. They travel to face San Diego (13-7, 2-3) on the road on Saturday, then over to Moraga to face St. Mary’s on Feb. 2 and then up to Spokane to face the No. 4 Bulldogs on Feb. 7.

“This is when we find out what we’re really about,” Smith said.College Sports

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