Despite grabbing a No. 4 seed in the NIT Tournament, USF was outmatched and eliminated in the first round, losing 71-63 to the Louisiana State University Tigers. With their early exit in the NIT, the Dons’ most successful season under head coach Rex Walters officially came to an end.
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).
The Dons won both of their two games last week, beating the Pacific Tigers in a close matchup on Saturday after defeating St. Mary’s for the first time since 2006 just two days before. The wins improve the Dons’ season record to 18-10 and their conference record to 11-5, currently putting them at third in the Western Coast Conference.
Despite a late drive by Pacific that almost won them the game, USF managed to hang on for the win against the Tigers in a 64-59 victory, aided in part by 15-point games from both senior forward Cole Dickerson and sophomore guard Avry Holmes. Dickerson also tacked on 13 rebounds for the Dons in his final home game for USF before he graduates.
“I’m sure emotions played a big part with Cole [Dickerson] today,” head coach Rex Walters told usfdons.com. “He doesn’t show much on the outside, but he wanted this one bad for obvious reasons.”
The Dons jumped out to an early lead against the Tigers and maintained it throughout the course of the first half. USF headed into halftime up 33-21, but the Tigers rallied fiercely in the second half and managed to take the lead a couple of times, but only by two points at most. A layup by Dickerson broke a 57-57 tie, and free throws from both Holmes and redshirt sophomore forward Mark Tollefson helped the Dons cement their lead and secure the victory.
USF’s win on Saturday was their second of the week, and it came after a commanding performance against St. Mary’s on Thursday that concluded with the Dons shutting down the Gaels 73-62. USF had lost 17 straight games to the Gaels over the last nine years.
Before Saturday, the Dons’ last victory against the Gaels was on Jan. 10, 2006.
The first half was very similar to that of the Pacific game, as the Dons performed well and maintained a double-digit lead going into halftime. Their performance was highlighted by massive dunks from both Tollefson and junior forward Kruize Pinkins. Tollefson, Pinkins, and junior guard Matt Glover led the Dons in scoring with 16 points each.
Although there were times in the second half when it seemed like the Gaels might rally for a comeback, USF always managed to stay on top and respond to St. Mary’s attempts at a run. The Gaels were able to cut the lead to 61-52 with 3:40 to play, but they would get no closer than that. A fastbreak dunk by Tollefson with 1:14 to go put USF up by a comfortable 12 points, and effectively sealed the win for the Dons. As a team, the Dons shot 50 percent both from the field and from beyond the arc, while also giving up only four turnovers.
The games against Pacific and St. Mary’s were the last Dons home contests of the year. USF has two games left in the regular season, with the first coming on Feb. 27 at 7:00 p.m. in Malibu, Calif. versus Pepperdine, and the second on Mar. 1 at 7:00 p.m. in Los Angeles, Calif. against LMU.
With the season nearing its end, every game is becoming a must-win for the Dons. They seemed well aware of that on Saturday, when they pulled through for a tough 69-63 victory over the Santa Clara Broncos at the Leavey Center. The exciting win moved the Dons to 16-10 overall and 9-5 in West Coast Conference (WCC) play. Meanwhile, Santa Clara’s loss dropped them to 11-16 (4-10 WCC).
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.
The Dons fell to the Gonzaga Bulldogs 75-65 on Saturday night at War Memorial Gym to end their three-game winning streak. USF was held to just 34.5 percent shooting from the field and made only 22 free throws compared to the Bulldogs’ 34.
The Dons jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the first half, with a three-pointer by sophomore guard Avry Holmes starting the scoring as the crowd erupted into cheers. Holmes led the Dons in scoring with 18 points, and shot 38.5 percent from the floor and 50 percent from beyond the arc. After the Dons’ hot start, the Bulldogs picked it up and scored 13 unanswered points, which included an easy dunk by center Przemek Karnowski. With 9:09 remaining in the first half, Karnowski went up for a rebound but collided with a teammate, leading to a cut that continued bleeding and forced Karnowski to be substituted out of the game multiple times. This spawned cheers of “WE WANT BLOOD!” from the USF fans.
The Bulldogs gave up a number of turnovers in the first half, but the Dons failed to capitalize off of them and gave up many of their own, which kept the score in Gonzaga’s favor for the remainder of the half. Though the Dons didn’t take they had a number of big plays at the end of the half including an alley oop dunk by junior guard Matt Glover with 3:07 to go, and another three by Holmes to close the half the way he started it and bring the score to 32-28.
The Dons only scored six fewer points than the Bulldogs in the second half, but Gonzaga was never seriously tested as it held USF’s two leading scorers, senior forward Cole Dickerson and junior forward Kruize Pinkins, to just six points apiece.
“We weren’t efficient offensively,” Head Coach Rex Walters told usfdons.com. “We didn’t make the simple plays. Their length bothers us and I think [Gonzaga Coach] Mark [Few] did a great job in his post defense. That’s the first team that’s been able to double us and take us out of our stuff. They have a great combination of size, athleticism and feel.”
Sophomore forward Mark Tollefson went 50 percent from both inside and outside the arc, scoring the second most points for the Dons at 15 to go with seven rebounds. Gonzaga center Sam Dower, Jr. led the Bulldogs in scoring with 24 points, and made 12 out of his 13 free-throw attempts.
USF had previously bested the Portland Pilots 84-71 at home on Wednesday, Jan. 29. In that game, four Dons scored in double digits and the team finished shooting 56.3 percent from the floor. The loss to Gonzaga drops the Dons down to an overall record of 14-9, and a 7-4 mark in West Coast Conference (WCC) play. USF currently sits at third in the WCC behind Gonzaga and BYU.
The Dons will now leave for a road trip that includes games against the San Diego Toreros on Thursday, Feb. 6 at 7:00 p.m., and the BYU Cougars on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 6:00 p.m.. The Dons’ next home game will be against the Saint Mary’s Gaels on Feb. 20 at 7:00 p.m.