WAR MEMORIAL GYM — Kyle Smith, the head coach of the University of San Francisco, exhaled deeply as he walked off the court on Thursday night.
Moments earlier, Portland’s Marcus Shaver Jr. rimmed out what would have been a game-winning 3-pointer just before the final buzzer, making USF 65-63 winners.
On a night when the Dons escaped with a hard-fought win, pushed their record to 14-12 overall and clawed to within a game of the .500 mark (6-7) in West Coast Conference play, here’s what you need to know …
The Dons couldn’t shake the Pilots. Early in the second half, USF appeared to be sprinting out to a comfortable advantage. With 13:34 on the clock, the Dons had pushed the lead to 40-32, thanks to a 10-2 spurt. Instead, USF was never able to pull away from Portland, which kept rallying.
The Pilots cut the deficit to a single point, 60-59 with 65 seconds to go and nearly served the Dons with the aforementioned dagger in the closing moments. Smith said he was calm as the shot went up and didn’t have flashback to last month when a late foul sank the Dons to a 67-65 loss to Loyola Marymount.
“I thought we guarded it pretty well,” Smith said.
“I’m glad we didn’t foul them. We’ve done that this year, so that’s growth,” Smith added with a laugh. “That was the Loyola game, basically.”
The coach was also pleased with the way his team bent but never broke during the second half.
“I told our guys that’s the sign of a good program,” Smith explained. “It’s hard to sweep anybody. I tell them all the time, the team that stays with it — it’s getting late in the year — the team that really sticks with what they do, regardless of circumstance, will benefit from it.”
The Dons delivered a dream start. Smith couldn’t have scripted a more promising beginning to the contest. USF forced six Portland turnovers before the Pilots even recorded a point, holding their opponents scoreless for the first 5:40 of play. The Dons commanded a 10-2 lead at that point but the early advantage would vanish amid a flood of poor shooting. Heading into the break, USF clung to a 28-26 lead.
The first half was offensive. As in hard to watch. The Dons entered the evening averaging 70.4 points per game in 14 games at War Memorial. In the opening half against Portland, the hosts managed just 28 points, shooting 40 percent from the field (12-for-40) and 20 percent (1-for-5) from distance.
As stagnant as the Dons were, the Pilots were worse.
No stat better embodied Portland’s malaise than the team’s two assists in the first 20 minutes.
The starting five is settling in. For the second time in as many games, Smith opted for a starting lineup that featured Chase Foster instead of Souley Boum.
Boum, the club’s talented but inexperienced freshman guard, provided energy off the bench, grabbing a lightning-quick steal early in the second half that led to an easy bucket. The problem is that was the only shot he made, going 1-for-7 from the field.
Foster meanwhile was one of four Dons starters in double figures (11 points).
“It’s no secret, I think those five have been really playing well,” Smith said. “I think our bench hit the wall a little bit.”
Remu Raitanen was the reserve of the night, draining a pair of second-half triples and finishing with eight points.
“They struggled the first half, but in the second half Remu was a big lift for us.”