— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) December 16, 2018
As good as the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team has been this year — ranking No. 21 in the NCAA Tournament tool NET amidst its best start in almost 20 years — 3-point shooting has not been a calling card.
The Dons do plenty well — point guard Frankie Ferrari is fifth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, they’re shooting 59.7 percent inside the arc (second in the nation) and are eighth in the nation in rebound margin at +12.4 — and they may defend the three well, ranking 11th in the nation with a 26.8 3-point field goal percentage against. Shooting the three? That’s a different story: San Francisco is shooting a pedestrian 34.3 percent this season.
On Sunday, the Dons hit four 3-pointers in the first 3:35 against Cal State Fullerton, and on War Memorial Gym’s 60th birthday, head coach Kyle Smith’s team went 10-of-25 from beyond the arc, dominated a 2018 NCAA Tournament team, 68-54, and moved to 10-1 for the first time since 1999.
“I know we made quite a few early, and that’s strange, because Fullerton doesn’t give up many attempts, and they were defending pretty well,” Smith said. “It’s surprising that we did that, and I thought we defended pretty well throughout the game. We had a little lull there in the second half, but we stayed steady defensively.”
The Dons — who were up by 25 with 13:06 left in the game — didn’t quite get to the single-game 3-point record Smith’s 2016 team set (18), only attempting 10 after the break, but they didn’t need to against a Titans team that, despite having two players averaging 18.8 points per game in Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman Jr., came in having lost two in a row and three of its last four.
San Francisco finished 10-of-25 from three on the night, and had three players score in double-digits, led by Ferrari with 16, Charles Minlend with 14 and Jordan Ratinho with 13.
Ratinho — who began the game 16 treys shy of third place in program history for career 3-pointers — drained all three of his 3-pointers in the first half, including the first of four straight by the Dons to open up play. The fourth came from redshirt sophomore Minlend, who hit two in the first half despite a 20.8-percent mark from beyond the arc this season.
“We were running our offense patiently, we were defending well, getting a lot of stops in the beginning of the game, which was helping us offensively,” Ratinho said. “We were just getting good shots and knocking them down.”
Ferrari’s ability to drive and kick facilitated 3-pointers from five different players, in addition to himself, in the first 20 minutes. Ferrari, for his part, hit all three attempts he made from long distance before the break, as the Dons went 8-of-16. He finished with four assists, but had several secondary helpers that didn’t show up in the stat sheet.
“They were pressuring Frankie a lot of the game, and we flipped it, put the ball in Charles’s hands and he made a couple nice buckets,” Smith said. “I think that’s a great changeup. Frankie’s probably taking too many of the possessions, but he’s so good, you want him to all the time, but we’ve got other ways to create offense.”
After San Francisco’s initial 12-0 run, they let the Titans back into things with a 12-2 run of their own, before a pair of back-to-back Ratinho threes and a Remu Raitanen lay-up off a dish from Minlend got the lead up to 14.
A three by little-used freshman Dzmitry Ryuny sparked a 10-2 run. With 3:29 left, Ferrari swiped a steal from Austen Awosika, pushed the ball up to Ryuny and rolled to his left. Ryuny found Ferrari on a swing pass back to Ferrari, turned around and smirked before Ferrari’s third 3-pointer of the half hit the bottom of the net.
San Francisco went on a 10-4 run to open the second half, with threes from Ferrari and forward Matt McCarthy, but took their foot off the gas once the lead reached 25, when senior co-captain Nate Renfro threw down a massive two-handed dunk in transition.
After holding Fullerton to just 18 points on 8-of-25 shooting in the first half, the Dons allowed the Titans to shoot 14-of-30 in the second half, letting them claw back into contention until they trailed by 13 with five minutes to go. They would get no closer, getting off only three shots the rest of the way.
“We’ve got a pretty good defender in Jordan Ratinho, and I think that goes really unnoticed,” Smith said. “He takes the toughest guy. Charles had some moments there, too. I think Jamaree [Bouyea] is really an elite defender on the perimeter, and you’ve got Taavi [Jurkatamm] and Nate [Renfro], Matt [McCarthy] is really good too, and Jimbo [Lull] was playing with a sprained ankle. It was a team effort. That’s been our calling card all year.”
San Francisco did, however, limit Ahmad to just six points on 3-of-10 shooting and Allman to 14 points on 6-of-16 from the field and 2-of-7 from three. Those two combined to score 11 of their 20 points in the second half.
“They’ve got those two scorers who can get them right back in the game quick, so it was good — you give up the lead, you fight back and you win the game, those are good games,” Ferrari said.
Next up is Northern Arizona (2-6), which lost 79-74 to 3-6 San Jose State on Saturday. On Dec. 22, the Dons host Stanford, and though they’re expected to be favored, it will arguably be San Francisco’s biggest test, as their final Power 5 team before West Coast Conference play begins.
So far, aside from an 85-81 loss in Belfast, Northern Ireland to No. 14 Buffalo, only one game has been close for the Dons: a 61-57 win over Harvard on Nov. 21. Eight of San Francisco’s 10 wins have come by 18 points or more.
“That was a good team, and we let off the gas a little bit in the second half,” Ratinho said. “Thought we had it won, playing a little lackadaisical for a second there. But, I think we needed that.”
With acclaimed actor and San Francisco native Danny Glover on hand, a special guest of university president Father Paul Fitzgerald, San Francisco moved to 10-1 on the season. Smith said the Dons are “way ahead” of where he thought they would be in his third season at the helm.
“That was always the question: When would we be able to compete?” Smith said. “We don’t put too much measurement on it, but I thought we had a good group early, as far as their attitude. They were embracing what we were doing. With Nate, Matt, Frankie, I thought when they became seniors, I said, ‘We’ll be something.’ I wouldn’t expect to necessarily be 10-1.”
San Francisco is now four wins away from their best start in decades. They’ve matched the 1980-81 team’s start in what turned out to be a West Coast Conference championship season.
“That’s big, that’s big,” said Ferrari, who came to the Dons when the program was the definition of middling, going 29-33 in his first two seasons. “We’ve got a great group of guys. Everybody’s on the same page. The culture that we’ve created is pretty unique, and this is a pretty unique team in terms of all 14 guys coming in as one. It’s a great thing to be a part of, and something to build on.”
The 1981-82 team went 14-1 to start, en route to an NCAA Tournament berth. The 1999-2000 team and 1972-73 team each started 12-1. The 1972-73 team finished ranked No. 20 in the nation and won the WCC.
The greatest start by a Dons team came in 1976-77. That team went 29-2 overall, ranking No. 8 overall in the final AP poll, winning 29 straight games before falling at Notre Dame in the season finale, and then to UNLV in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional.