Photo: Darren Yamashita / USF Athletics
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For more than a decade, St. Mary’s dominated USF, winning 24 of their 25 meetings.
But after the Dons held off the Gaels 76-72 in a packed Memorial Gym in a WCC opener on Thursday night, USF has beaten St. Mary’s twice in a row — something that hadn’t happened since the Dons won seven straight against the Gaels from 1999 through 2002.
This experienced, smart USF team improved to 13-2. After the win, head coach Kyle Smith was asked if his players had expected to beat St. Mary’s.
“They expected to play well at home. They’re pretty purposeful in everything they do,” Smith said. “It’s a big win, trust me. It’s emotional.”
The Dons led most of the night, but the Gaels put together a 16-3 run that tied it 60-60 with just less than eight minutes remaining.
St. Mary’s guard Jordan Ford scored seven of his game-high 24 points in that stretch. He also had an assist on Dan Fotu’s tying three-pointer from the left corner.
On the ensuing possession, Frankie Ferrari missed a jumper from the left side, but Nate Renfro crashed the boards from the right side and converted a putback despite a foul by Fotu.
That ignited a 12-2 spurt for USF, which then looked to be in command, leading 72-62 with 3½ minutes remaining.
Back came the Gaels (9-7). They scored the next seven points and had the ball with a chance to tie. Ford, though, got called for an offensive foul, drawn by Ferrari with 34 seconds left, and the Gaels could get no closer than three the rest of the way.
St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett gave the Dons their due — “I think we got beat by a good team” — but wasn’t particularly pleased with his team.
“I don’t think we played well,” he said. “We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to compete better. We’ve got to just do little things better.”
Ferrari and Renfro, both seniors, were two big reasons why USF was just a little better than St. Mary’s on Thursday night.
Ferrari had a team-high 19 points and a game-high seven assists. Renfro had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Renfro, who came into the game shooting 42 percent from the foul line, hit 9 of 11 foul shots.
He suggested he might have had some divine intervention to do so well from the stripe, but then added, “I’ve been practicing a lot. Some guys come in and just start shooting threes when they warm up. I’ve been trying to just get on the line and shoot free throws — and it’s paying off.”
Smith and Bennett are close friends; Smith spent nine seasons on Bennett’s staff at St. Mary’s.
Smith paid tribute to his former boss when discussing how his players have progressed.
“We’ve got really good senior leadership. They want to give themselves the best to chance to win. I think that’s part of why they behave that way. They have a high expectation, high self-esteem. (Those) are a lot of things I learned from Coach Bennett, to be honest.”
Briefly: St. Mary’s forward Malik Fitts had a double-double (13 points, 13 rebounds) but Renfro’s defense contributed to Fitts going 4-for-15 from the floor. … With renovations to the facility under way, Memorial Gym’s capacity has shrunk from approximately 4,500 to approximately 3,500. The Dons’ game against No. 7 Gonzaga on Jan. 12 is a sellout. … The Dons and Gaels meet in Moraga on Feb. 2.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/collegesports/article/USF-holds-off-St-Mary-s-in-WCC-opener-13507592.php.