SANTA CLARA — After a missed Tahj Eaddy free throw with 21.7 seconds left, the University of San Francisco’s leading — and arguably most dynamic — scorer, Charles Minlend Jr., missed a contested 3-pointer instead of looking for an open teammate.
Trey Wertz gave the Dons a second chance by missing both of his free throw attempts, but Minlend charged through the lane looking for a layup on a play that could draw comparisons to some of J.R. Smith’s decisions in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. He didn’t get a shot off. The ball went out of bounds with 0.8 seconds left, and the Dons didn’t get another chance.
While 20 points by Santa Clara’s Josip Vrankic and 15 San Francisco turnovers arguably played a larger role in the Dons’ 68-65 loss to the Broncos, when San Francisco needed Minlend the most on Saturday night, he made a pair of poor decisions under pressure that may have officially ended their chances at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We didn’t execute well enough to give ourselves a chance there,” head coach Kyle Smith said. “Normally we just keep driving, down three until a certain amount of time left, but we needed a three there. Those things happen, and I just think he got caught up in the moment. He’ll bounce back.”
A redshirt sophomore, Minlend will have plenty of time to bounce back, but with two games left in the regular season, time is running out for the Dons’ seniors, like point guard and co-captain Frankie Ferrari. Ferrari had 17 points on 5-of-8 from beyond the 3-point line, along with nine assists, scoring the 1,000th point of his collegiate career to become the 36th player in school history to do so. Seven of Ferrari’s assists came in the first half, and his chances at a 10th were thwarted by physical Santa Clara defense. San Francisco (21-7, 9-5 WCC) did not attempt a free throw in the first half, and the Broncos committed just two fouls in the opening 13 minutes.
“We were a little low in the tank after playing Thursday in Provo [against BYU],” Smith said. “We had the short end of the stick on the schedule, and we were hyper-sensitive about getting calls.”
Vrankic, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from Toronto, scored 13 in the opening half as Santa Clara (15-13, 7-7) took a 33-30 lead into the break. Neither team would create separation in the second half, with neither teams able to go ahead by more than six. The lead would change hands 13 times in the second half, with the final go-ahead basket coming from Wertz with 2:29 left.
The Dons went scoreless over the final 3:23, turning it over just once in that span but missing their last five attempts from the field. Trailing by two with 31 seconds left, a 3-point try by Ferrari would bounce out and Nate Renfro’s put-back attempt missed.
Though the Broncos scored 35 points in the second half, they had to work for every last one of those points, constantly getting taken down to the end of the shot clock before forcing up contested looks. Santa Clara didn’t make a single 3-pointer after Wertz connected to tie the game at 53 with 7:19 remaining.
The loss dropped the Dons to 6-5 on the road, and since their first two away games — a 33-point win over UC Davis and a 19-point victory at Cal — none of those wins have come by more than the six-point victory in Thursday’s trip to BYU, a margin that was only attained with late free throws.
San Francisco center Jimbo Lull scored 12 points as the only member of the Dons’ roster to join Ferrari in double figures, though Renfro and Jamaree Bouyea each scored nine. Renfro helped to slow Vrankic in the second half, not getting called for any fouls after the first seven minutes.
When it wasn’t Vrankic, the Broncos seemed to always have someone heat up at the right time. Eaddy scored 16, while Wertz and Guglielmo (Willie) Caruso each scored 13 for the hosts.
San Francisco’s strongest stretches seemed to come in very brief inspired spurts, such as a 7-0 run over a 30-second span to take a 39-38 lead, when a Ferrari 3-pointer was followed by consecutive steals and dunks from Minlend and Renfro.
The Broncos consistently got timely baskets from all over their lineup. They played just two reserves, and those bench players combined for only four points, but they made sure those points counted. Keshawn Justice, who shot just 1-for-7 on the night, scored on a finger roll with 5:30 left to put his team up 59-57. Ferrari would hit a pair of threes over the next two minutes, celebrating the second the moment it left his hands as USF took a 65-63 lead, but Henrik Jadersten, who was honored in Santa Clara’s pregame Senior Night ceremony, quickly tied it back up with his lone points of the night.
The loss not only is damaging to the Dons’ at-large hopes, but it also makes the chase for the second seed in the WCC Tournament and a direct bye into the semifinals significantly more difficult. They now sit a half-game behind BYU and a full game behind Saint Mary’s, though the Gaels still have to face Gonzaga once more. San Francisco’s final two regular season games are at home against San Diego and Loyola Marymount, and the Dons do have the season series sweep over BYU. A loss in either of their final two home games would likely drop them into the fourth spot, meaning Gonzaga could await as early as the semifinals.