The month of March is synonymous with Spring, a time for new beginnings, the rebirth of life, and sports seasons. For the USF menʼs basketball team, the month of March led them to Las Vegas to compete in the West Coast Conference Tournament. Every team in the WCC plays in the tournament, with the winning team moving on automatically to the March Madness Tournament.
This year St. Maryʼs captured their ﬁrst outright WCC title during the regular season and is looking to claim a tournament title. Defending tournament champions and national powerhouse Gonzaga, who failed to win the WCC title for this ﬁrst time in 11 years, aimed to bring at least one trophy back to Spokane.
These two teams were predicted to meet in the tournament ﬁnal, as they have for the last four years. USF, along with the rest of the WCC, went to the desert looking to upset the Zags and Gaels, thereby claiming a spot in the national dance next week. Playing everyday in single elimination games, the path to the Pool of 64 was going to be more challenging than wind sprints up the Lone Mountain steps.
Entering the tournament as the number 5 seed, USF was well positioned to make a run at Gonzaga and St. Maryʼs. The Dons ﬁrst contest was against the Portland Pilots, a team that the Dons beat twice this season, highlighted by an inspired 104-70 win at home. The Dons continued their run of perfection against the Pilots, downing them 87-66. As a sign of things to come, the Dons dropped eleven 3-pointers on Portland on 11-23 shooting from behind the arc, numerous Pilot runs.
Seniors Angelo Caloiaro and Rashad Green led the team in scoring, each netting 19 points in an effort that gave the Dons momentum going into their contest with LMU. Big man Perris Blackwell added 15 points and 6 rebounds, while Cole Dickerson came off the bench to snag ten boards and 8 points for USF. Senior Nemanja Mitrovic lead the Pilots in scoring with 16 points off the bench, but received little support from his teammates as he was the sole scorer in double digits for Portland. While expected, the win gave the Dons momentum going into their next contest against the LMU Lions, a team they had lost to twice previously this season.
USF has not had the most memorable time at the WCC tournament — prior to tip-off against LMU, the Dons had only won one tournament game since they won it all in 1998. USF was 40 minutes away from a 20-win season (their ﬁrst since 1982), doubling their WCC tournament wins and advancing to the penultimate game of the weekend, the semi-ﬁnals against St. Mary’s. Coach Rex Walters needed inspired play from his team leaders in order to rattle off their second win in as many nights, and his back-court answered the call. Junior Michael Williams netted a game high 19 points (5-8 from behind the 3-point line) and spearheaded the Dons 67-60 win over LMU. Matching Williamsʼ effort was Green, who contributed primarily defensively and reached a career high seven steals. After a lackluster showing against Portland, sophomore Cody Doolin let loose for 16 points while USFʼs sixth man Dickerson added 10 points and four rebounds to the mix. The game was tight all the way through, with neither team able to really pull away. When momentum swung to the Lions, Doolin or Williams lined up a 3-pointer or drove the line for the and-1, effectively ending any chance LMU had at breaking the game open and getting away from the Dons. Green hit a monster three late in the game that ensured the win and spring-boarded USF to its second contest within two weeks against the Men of Moraga.
In sports, there is always a desire to get even with a team that has somehow wronged you, and the case of St. Maryʼs against USF has a pretty egregious history. Aside from a decade long losing streak to the Gaels, USF saw SMC celebrate their ﬁrst ever WCC title on the Hilltopʼs hardwood, an event so morally crushing to the home team that nothing but a shot at redemption would be adequate enough relief. USF got their shot in the semi-ﬁnals of the WCC tournament and they made the most of it, giving SMC all they could handle and then some. In a game as emotionally and competitively charged as this one, players can often lose their composure and become unnerved. Those situations can bring out the best and the worst in players, and that night America got to see Cody Doolinʼs best on national television. Doolin sunk a game and career high 28
points at Orleans Arena, while playing all but one minute of the game. Yet the effort was in vain as the Gaels bested USF in another close ﬁnish, with a ﬁnal score of 83-78.
All ﬁve SMC starters ﬁnished with double digit scoring, led by senior Clint Steindlʼs 19 point effort. For the Dons, Doolin was ﬂanked by Blackwell (19 points) and Green (12 points) with Dickerson continuing to be productive off the bench, adding 10 more points to the Dons total. Despite having the lead for the ﬁrst three quarters of the game, USF could not hold off the Gaels indeﬁnitely.
SMC will go on to play Gonzaga for the WCC Tournament title while USF must wait for Selection Sunday to see which post-season tournament they will partake in.
Like many, USF is leaving Vegas empty handed. They could not beat their East Bay rival nor could they claim any hardware for the Hilltop. Yet the Dons can still be proud of their effort in the desert. They beat LMU, a team they had lost to twice already, at the moment when it counted most. They proceeded to stand toe-to-toe with the best the WCC, or any conference, has to offer. They secured a 20 win season for themselves, their coaches and their fans, many of whom made the trip East to cheer on their team in person. While the USF Dons will most likely not be going to Phoenix for the NCAA dance, the post-season is still a reality for the Dons. There are three possible tournaments, the NIT, CBI and CIT, in which USF could end up, and all three present the Dons with a chance to bring a championship back to the Hilltop.