The Dons’ quest for an NCAA Tournament bid came to a heartbreaking end on Monday, Mar. 10 as they dropped a 79-77 overtime decision to BYU in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. The loss was as disappointing as they come for the Dons, but the pain was eased considerably on Sunday when USF was named a No. 4 seed in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
Against BYU, the Dons were led by senior forward Cole Dickerson’s 20 points and 10 rebounds. Junior guard Matt Glover added 14 points for USF, and sophomore guard Tim Derksen put up 11 points off the bench. Sophomore point guard Avry Holmes, the Dons’ second leading scorer, shot just 4-for-16 from the floor for 10 points, but did dish out seven assists.
BYU led most of the way in the first half, holding onto several 10-point leads until a 11-1 run capped by a three-pointer by Dickerson, who gave the Dons a 31-29 advantage with 3:41 left until halftime. Holmes contributed to the triumphant comeback with a three of his own to send the Dons into the locker room up 37-35 after a tumultuous first half.
The second half lived up to the billing of a matchup between two teams tied for second place in the WCC, with no lead by either team exceeding four points for the first ten minutes. The game became an offensive struggle as the game wore on, and the Dons shot just 38 percent in the second half, with BYU shooting just 35 %. After a clutch three-pointer from redshirt sophomore forward Mark Tollefsen tied the game at 64-64 with 3:21 left, not a single basket was scored by either team for the rest of regulation.
In the overtime period, BYU quickly went on a 6-0 run to jump out to a 70-64 lead. However, the Dons refused to fold, and with just eight seconds left in overtime, they got the ball back trailing by just two points. Holmes was able to take a last-gasp three-pointer, but it clanged off iron, sending BYU to the championship game. The Cougars played Gonzaga for the WCC title, a game which the Bulldogs would take 75-64.
The previous Saturday saw the Dons kick off the WCC Tournament with a 69-60 victory over San Diego. Holmes continued his stellar play from the regular season, scoring a team-high 19 points, while the Dons continued their team dominance on the boards, out-rebounding the Toreros 37-28 and notching their 17th victory when getting more rebounds than their opponent. Derksen added to the cause, grabbing six rebounds to go with 15 points. Tollefsen also came through for the Dons, tallying 14 points and five rebounds.
USF took a 10-point lead into halftime due in large part to their shooting beyond the arc. San Francisco shot 6-12 from three in the first half, while San Diego struggled, shooting 2-8 from long distance. The Dons were able to maintain their lead in the second half, as they shot just 8-21 from the field in the final 20 minutes but held San Diego to 31 percent shooting during that time span. The Toreros closed the gap to 48-47 on a three-pointer from Johnny Dee with 8:36 to go, but the Dons responded with an 11-1 run that put them in control down the stretch.
On top of rebounding and three-point shooting, USF held the advantage in other facets of the game, including points in the paint—a 24-16 advantage—and bench points—an 18-11 advantage.
Though the Dons came up just short in the WCC Tournament, their 21-11 record was good enough to get them into the NIT for the first time since 2005, and set them up for a matchup with No. 5 seed Louisiana State in the tournament’s first round.
“We’re extremely excited and proud to be included in this year’s NIT field,” head coach Rex Walters told usfdons.com. “It’s quite an accomplishment for this team that has come so far this season.”
The result of the Dons’ game against Louisiana State at War Memorial Gym on Wednesday, Mar. 19 was not available at press time. With a win over LSU, the Dons would play either SMU or UC Irvine in the second round of the NIT.