Tag Archives: basketball

USF’s 1954-55 National Championship Team. Photos courtesy of Dons Athletics

Life-Long Dons

USF basketball players from the 1950’s “Golden Era” share their memories and discuss how teammates turned into friends

Last week, Bernie Schneider made a trip from San Francisco to Lake County to visit his friend, Ed Slevin. Since they met each other nearly 60 years ago, their focus has moved from basketball courts to golf courses, but the importance of their friendship has not diminished at all.

During Schneider and Slevin’s time as basketball players for USF from 1955 to 1959, they witnessed what was undoubtedly the most decorated era in the university’s sports history. From experiencing the 1955 NCAA Championship victory to practicing against all-time greats like Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, to playing as seniors in the first year of War Memorial Gym’s existence, the two players were present for countless legendary moments, all the while developing special, long-lasting relationships with other teammates.

“The friends that I met at USF are still my friends,” Slevin said. “My teammates are still my closest friends.”

The Dons were on top of the college basketball world in the mid 1950’s, winning USF’s first NCAA Championship in 1955, and then repeating as champions in 1956. These San Francisco teams were led by future NBA Hall-of-Famers Russell and Jones, as well as standouts such as Hal Perry, Gene Brown, and Warren Baxter. With coach Phil Woolpert at the helm, the Dons won 55 consecutive games between 1955 and 1956, coming in third place in the country in 1957, after Russell and Jones had headed to the NBA.

“It was kind of a golden era at USF,” Slevin said. “They really had a powerful bunch of guys there.”

Slevin came to USF on a scholarship in 1955 and played on the school’s freshman team during his first year as a Don. In the 1950’s, USF had freshman, junior varsity, and varsity basketball teams, and even though Slevin didn’t play for varsity until the 1958-59 season, he lived with all of the other basketball players on campus in Phelan Hall. Here, Slevin quickly got to know his teammates.

“If you were on scholarship, you had to live in the dorms, so we all lived together, and we all lived on basically two floors,” Slevin said. “It was just like a bunch of good friends living together.”

Eating countless meals together and holding ping-pong tournaments bonded the team together. Some of the players, such as Perry, were also gifted musicians, and the team would often hold their own “jam sessions”.

Slevin lived one floor below Russell and Jones, who were roommates, and he remembers them as intense competitors during games, but genuinely nice people off of the court. Once, Slevin recalls, he walked up to their room and asked them if they could provide tickets for his friends who wanted to attend their next game. The game, which was against St. Mary’s at the infamous Cow Palace was sold out, and neither Russell nor Jones had any extra tickets. However, they thought of a gesture that would be nearly as meaningful. They each wrote notes on a copy of a Look Magazine issue that they had been featured in, apologizing to Slevin’s friends that they were not able to give them tickets. They then gave the magazine to Slevin and told him to send it to his friends.

“That’s the kind of guys they were,” Slevin said.

While Slevin had plenty of time to socialize with his fellow Dons in the dormitories, Schneider lived off campus during his time at USF. However, both got to play with the best team in the country during practice. At the beginning of their first years, the freshman team scrimmaged against the varsity squad in a game for the media before the season got started. Right off the bat, Slevin and Schneider were forced to get used to competing against the nation’s top talent.

“It was fun being on the same court as them,” Schneider said. “I can say I had my shot blocked by Bill Russell, so that’s a claim to fame. I also scored one basket over his fingertips that I’m pretty proud of.”

Slevin remembers marveling at Russell’s “fantastic athletic ability,” as well as the mean streak that the team had when they stepped onto the court.

“You didn’t want to screw around with Russell on the court, or any of them,” Slevin said.

By 1959, USF’s top players from  the “golden era” had graduated, and the team was no longer a NCAA Championship contender. However, the 1958-59 season was still a memorable one for Slevin and Schneider. Along with their good friends John Cunningham and Dave Lillevand, they made varsity and were key contributors to the first USF team to ever play in War Memorial Gym, which remains the Dons’ home to this day.

Even though Slevin and Schneider were never star players in their careers as Dons, their time spent as USF athletes profoundly affected the way they would lead their lives after college. After graduating, Schneider went on to coach basketball at Marin Catholic High School, and later Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif. He then became a teacher until retiring in the 1990’s.

“My experiences at USF prepared me for a coaching and teaching career,” Schneider said. “I feel that my life would have been a lot different were it not for what I experienced at USF. I was very lucky, and my kids have enjoyed playing basketball also.”

Schneider’s children have certainly taken after their father in terms of their athletic interests. He has a son that coaches at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose Calif., and another that works as a referee for high school games. Schneider also has two grandchildren that play high school basketball.

“Our family has been very much involved in the basketball scene,” Schneider said. “We’re very fortunate that way, to have great joy from the game of basketball.”

Basketball is not just something that has been instilled in the family lineage of USF players from the 1950’s – it is also a sport that has brought a group of men together and created bonds that remained strong long after they left college. Each Fourth of July, four players from the 1950’s teams, including Schneider and Cunningham, travel to Slevin’s Lake County residence to celebrate and spend time together. When they were younger, this special occasion would consist of shooting hoops and playing golf, but now, according to Slevin, the former Dons “just sit around and drink beer.” No matter what activities they engage in, though, they ensure that at least once a year, they will unite just as they once did on the basketball floor.

Slevin, Schneider, and the other Dons from the class of 1959 recently attended their 50th college reunion. This was another event that brought former USF basketball players together, and Slevin found the reunion valuable in that it rekindled his appreciation for the team and the school itself.

“It brought back a lot of fond memories, and renewed the love for the University of San Francisco, which you never lose once you’re there,” Slevin said.

Avry Homes drives past a Waves defender on his way to the basket. Holmes was named the WCC Player of the Week. 
Courtesy of Dons Athletics.

Men’s Basketball Lucky Number 20

Dons finish regular season 20-10 with wins over LMU and Pepperdine

    The Dons capped off their impressive 20-win regular season on a high note Saturday

night, edging Loyola Marymount 65-61. Backed by a career-high 25 points from sophomore guard Avry Holmes, who was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Week, USF took down a short-handed Lions team that only had six players available due to injury.

It was a wire-to-wire victory for the Dons, who were in the lead for the entire duration of the game. USF held off various runs, including a last-minute surge that included a five-second inbounding violation on the Dons. Despite the miscue, a missed three-pointer by LMU’s C.J. Blackwell, and a subsequent rebound by sophomore guard Tim Derksen kept the lead at 64-61. A free throw by Derksen made it a two-possession game and ended the scoring for the night.

Junior forward Kruize Pinkins registered his sixth double-double of the season, scoring 12 points and gathering 11 rebounds. In all, four Dons scored in double figures on the night, including 14 from senior forward Cole Dickerson and 10 from Derksen. The win resulted from a complete team effort, but the hero of the night was clearly Holmes. He scored his last seven points in the final three minutes, including a three-pointer with 3:16 remaining and a circus shot with 33 seconds left. These clutch shots from Holmes were both big buckets that held off late LMU runs.

“When [Avry Holmes] shot it down the stretch, I knew it was going in,” head coach Rex Walters told usfdons.com. “That’s the kind of player he his and the kind of confidence he has in his abilities.”

On Thursday, the Dons played a close first half before outscoring Pepperdine 47-21 in the second half en route to a 77-53 victory. Dickerson led the way for USF in the contest, scoring 21 points on an efficient 7-13 shooting, including a 2-3 night beyond the three-point arc. He also recorded his eighth double-double (22nd in his career) of the year as well, garnering 10 rebounds for the Dons.

An evenly matched first half—Pepperdine held a two-point lead at halftime after clawing

their way back into the game—became ugly for the Waves, as the Dons gained separation at the 12-minute mark of the second half and never looked back. Holmes came on strong in the final 20-minute period, scoring 14 of his 17 points. Pinkins complemented the big games from Dickerson and Holmes, pitching in 12 points in 20 minutes.

USF led by as much as 24 in the game, while the largest lead held by Pepperdine was four, at the outset of the second half. The rebound battle was also uneven, as the Dons held a final advantage of 40-29. Obtaining an advantage in rebounds has proven to be crucial for the Dons, who are 15-4 in games where they outrebound an opponent. USF’s defense was also top-notch, causing Pepperdine to struggle offensively throughout the game. The Waves registered a subpar 33.3 percent shooting percentage on the night, including a 2-16 night from the three-point line (12.5 percent).

“I’m proud of our guys because it’s been about the team,” Walters told usfdons.com. “It’s been a difficult year emotionally for everyone but we’ve come a long way…It’s not over – we have a long ways to go.”

The Dons do have a long ways to go, and they can thank their record for that. A 20-10 final regular season record marks the Dons’ first 20-win regular season since the 1981-82 season, and the second 20-win season in three years under head coach Rex Walters. On Monday, it was announced that Walters had been named the WCC’s Coach of the Year, and Dickerson was also awarded first team All-WCC honors.

Even more admirable than the 20-win season is the Dons’ 13-5 conference record, which placed them in a tie with BYU for second in the conference. Due to the Cougars winning the season series against USF, BYU will be seeded second and the Dons third in the West Coast Conference (WCC) Tournament, which begins this weekend. San Francisco will take a five-game winning streak to Las Vegas for the tournament, where they are schedule to face off against San Diego on Saturday, Mar. 8 at 12:00 p.m.

Will the Dons Go Dancing?

Examining USF’s NCAA Tournament Chances

After winning their final two games of the season against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, the Dons will enter the West Coast Conference (WCC) Championships seeded at number three. Coming off of a season in which they exceeded expectations, San Francisco is poised to make a splash in the conference tournament. However, WCC powerhouses such as Brigham Young and Gonzaga stand in the way of USF winning a conference championship and earning a ticket to the big dance.

The Dons are seeded in front of fourth-seeded St. Mary’s even though the Gaels possess a 21-10 record that bests the Dons 20-10 mark. St. Mary’s may have a better overall record, but the Dons’ five-game winning streak helped them surpass St. Mary’s in the conference standings.

Ranked in front of USF is Brigham Young, which ended the regular season at 21-10. BYU is behind top-seeded Gonzaga, which went 15-3 in conference play and 25-6 overall. No WCC team is currently ranked top 25 in the NCAA, but Gonzaga has been in and out of the rankings throughout the season.

Gonzaga is currently the defending WCC Champion, and has won 15 of the last 17 conference championships. Grabbing the number one seed gives them a significant advantage, and they are favored to win this year as well.

The tournament will start on Thursday, Mar. 6 with the ninth-seeded Pacific Tigers facing the eighth-seeded Santa Clara Broncos, and the seventh-seeded Portland Pilots facing the tenth- seeded LMU Tigers. The winners of those games will move on to the quarter finals on Mar. 8, where they will be paired against Gonzaga and BYU.

The Dons will also make their first appearance of the tournament in the quarterfinals, where they will play the San Diego Toreros, who are the sixth seed. If they win that game, they will move on to the semifinals, where they will most likely face off against BYU.

San Francisco won both of its regular season games against the Toreros, who went just 7-11 in conference play. However, the Dons but had a much tougher time facing BYU. They dropped both of their games against them, losing by five the first time and seven the second.

Despite this, it is still possible that USF will be able to pull off an upset and beat BYU, which means that they would move on to the conference finals where they would almost certainly have to play Gonzaga for the title. Getting past these two squads will be no easy task for the Dons, but USF is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time, and they head into the tournament looking to notch their first conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.

Tim Derksen led the Dons in scoring against the Cougars with 17 points on seven for eight shooting, but USF fell short against Brigham Young in Utah. (Photo courtesy of Dons Athletics)

Men’s Basketball: Dons Down Toreros, Drop Close Contest to Cougars

The Dons continued their three-game road trip on Saturday, Feb. 8, visiting the Brigham Young Cougars. BYU was the West Coast Conference coming into the game with a per-game average of 86.7, but USF limited the Cougars to only 68. Unfortunately, the Dons only put up 63 points themselves.

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Women’s Basketball: Dons Topple Toreros, Fall To Cougars

The Dons ended their 13-game losing streak against San Diego on Thursday night with a 78-74 victory over the Toreros in War Memorial Gym. USF was outrebounded by the Toreros 49-30, but managed to hang on for the win thanks to a career-high 28 points from sophomore guard Zhané Dikes.

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Women’s Basketball: Dons Lose to Toreros on Turnovers

Zhané Dikes was USF’s top scorer in games against San Diego and BYU, but the Dons dropped both contests and extended their losing streak to six games. (Photo courtesy of Dons Athletics)

Zhané Dikes was USF’s top scorer in games against San Diego and BYU, but the Dons dropped both contests and extended their losing streak to six games. (Photo courtesy of Dons Athletics)

Crippled by a large number of turnovers, the Dons dropped their sixth straight West Coast Conference game to the San Diego Toreros in a 76-58 loss this Saturday. Five USF players turned the ball over three or more times, leading to 27 total turnovers and 21 points for the opposition.

Redshirt junior forward Paige Spietz opened the game with two free throws, kicking off an 8-0 run to start the game for the Dons (7-13, 2-7 WCC). However, USF’s lead would get no larger than eight. The Toreros missed their first eight shot attempts but went on a 13-3 run after hitting their first basket, a three-pointer. After the run, San Diego and San Francisco traded baskets until the seventh minute of the first half, when San Diego hit another three-pointer to put them two baskets ahead.

Still, the Dons were able to keep pace with San Diego for most of the first half, and found themselves down by just two points with two minutes left in the half thanks to trips to the free-throw line by freshman guard Rachel Howard and sophomore guard Zhané Dikes. After that, a six-point run by the Toreros solidified their lead, and they finished the half up 35-27.

The Dons kept the game close in the start of the second half with Spietz again scoring the first points. With 16:34 left in the second half, a layup by junior guard Taj Winston cut San Diego’s lead to just three. San Diego’s offense then took control of the game, scoring 11 of the next 14 points, and putting San Francisco in a position that they could not recover from. Dikes and Howard led the Dons in scoring, tallying 14 and 13 points, respectively.

Two days earlier, USF was dealt a demoralizing 81-47 loss to the Brigham Young Cougars at the Marriott Center. The Dons were outmatched from the opening tip, falling behind 11-0 to start, and trailing 34-15 by halftime. Dikes led the team with 13 points, and was the only Don to reach double figures.

San Francisco hopes for a better outcome on Thursday, Jan. 30 when they face the 12-8 Portland Pilots in Oregon at 7:00 p.m.