WAR MEMORIAL GYM — With 4.4 seconds remaining in regulation, the University of San Francisco men’s’ basketball team retreated back on defense as San Diego guard Olin Carter III pushed the ball over the half court line.
Up 82-79, the Dons watched Carter pull up from 40 feet for an attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer. Banking it in off of the backboard, the shot sent a game in which USF had full control just two minutes earlier, to overtime.
“I didn’t think it was going to go in,” said Dons forward Charles Minlend Jr. “That was a tough shot by him. I think it was from like 35 or 40 feet, something crazy like that.”
After blowing a late second-half lead, the Dons went on to lose in the ensuing overtime period. Falling to the visiting Toreros 91-90 at War Memorial Gym on Thursday night, the defeat comes as one of the most disappointing losses of the Kyle Smith era and almost certainly ends what little hope remained of the team making the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 1998.
“I don’t think we’ve had a tougher [loss] here,” the Dons head coach said. “Obviously there was a lot at stake tonight. We didn’t play a great first half but our guys responded well and had control of that game late.”
The stakes at issue were West Coast Conference Tournament seedings, the one thing that could keep San Francisco from meeting the No. 1 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs before the tournament finals.
Last year, the then-No. 4-seed Dons were placed on the same side of the bracket as Gonzaga, leading to a semi-finals matchup on March 5, 2018. The result was an 88-60 shellacking courtesy of the Bulldogs, in which San Francisco looked overwhelmed and outmatched.
This season, the Dons looked to avoid a similar situation by capturing the No. 2 or 3 seed, placing them on the opposite side of the bracket. Entering Thursday with a 9-5 conference record, that looked to be a possibility, if they could get past San Diego, which dealt the first big blow to San Francisco’s NCAA Tournament hopes with a Jan. 26 loss in Southern California.
In the first half, the Dons were tasked with keeping up with an efficient Toreros offense that scored 41 points and shot nearly 60 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes of play.
San Diego was led by redshirt senior Isaiah Pineiro, who scored 16 of his eventual 28 points in the first half.
“He’s a load. He’s aggressive,” Smith said. “He’s a great player and it was a tough matchup for us tonight.”
Pineiro shot a blistering 87 percent from the field in the first half, hitting everything from jump hooks on the low post to fadeaway, mid-range jump shots from 17 feet. Pineiro served as the catalyst for the Toreros’ offense, as most of their actions ran through the 6-foot-7 forward.
Despite San Diego’s efficient effort, San Francisco responded with some white-hot shooting of their own. The Dons’ offensive attack centered around perimeter shooting.
San Francisco — which came into the game shooting under 36 percent on the season — hit seven of its nine attempted 3-pointers in the first half, including starting a perfect 7-of-7 from deep before missing their last two shots.
Chipping in three of those triples was Dons forward Dzmitry Ryuny, who missed nearly half of the season due to a pair of severe ankle sprains.
“It’s a preview of what you’re going to see which is a really good player for us,” Smith said in regards to Ryony, who finished the game with a career-high 14 points. “The poor guy has had two really bad ankle injuries … He can play both forward positions and gives us some length and can shoot the ball, too.”
Heading into the locker room down 41-36, the Dons came out in the second half with the same mentality. Knocking down a pair of threes to open the period, San Francisco went on a 10-4 run, pulling ahead of San Diego within the first three minutes out of the locker room.
The Dons were able to build their lead up to double digits with three minutes to go in regulation, and they were able to keep the Toreros and Pineiro at bay, holding him to only three second-half points.
“We mixed our defense up with him,” Smith said. “That helped us and kept the ball out of his comfort zone.”
With a comfortable grip on the game with under two minutes to go, San Francisco was sent to the free throw line to grind the game out as San Diego was forced to foul.
After a couple of missed free throws and some defensive lapses, including a misjudged rebound that went out of bounds, the Dons watched their lead dwindle down to just three points with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game.
“I had a turnover at the end [of regulation] and a rebound off of an airball that I don’t even know what happened,” Minlend said. “There were a few possessions that kind of gave it away.”
As Carter inbounded the ball and drove past the half court line, the Dons had a chance to foul to prevent the chance of San Diego tying the game with a miracle shot.
“I don’t like putting it in the refs hands to be honest,” Smith said. “4.4 [seconds] would have been the time to do it though.”
Instead, Carter’s prayer of a shot would bank off of the glass and into the basket, tying the game and triggering overtime.
In the overtime period, Pineiro would re-emerge, scoring all nine of the Toreros’ points. San Francisco would have a chance to win with a last-second shot of its own, but it clanked off of the front of the rim as the buzzers sounded.
With the loss, San Francisco falls to 9-5 in conference play, placing themselves as the tentative No. 4 seed behind Saint Mary’s (11-4) and BYU (10-5). It’s the same seeding as last year.
“Obviously we’re disappointed. Maybe even a little shocked,” Smith said. “But we have another game here in 36 hours. We’ve got to regroup and try to put it back together. It’s as simple as that.”
With their final game of the regular season against Loyola Marymount on Saturday afternoon, the Dons still have a chance — small as it may be — to improve their seeding.
In the event that BYU loses to San Diego on Saturday, San Francisco holds the tiebreaker after winning both games against the Cougars this season. This would, in turn, bump San Francisco to the No. 3 seed and allow them to avoid Gonzaga until the finals, should they advance that far.
“There’s no other alternative,” Smith said. “We can mope and pout and feel sorry for ourselves, but we’ll get our teeth kicked in.”