Video recap of the USF Don's 77-63 loss to the Portland Pilots (via USFDons.com)
The three San Francisco Dons seniors honored in a pre-game Senior Night ceremony came off the court for the final time of their collegiate careers at home to a spattering of applause from the 614 fans in attendance.
The fans' response was even more tepid after the buzzer sounded to finalize a 77-63 loss to the visiting Portland Pilots, dropping USF only a half game out of the West Coast Conference cellar with one game remaining before the conference tournament.
It's difficult to imagine that any athlete would ever desire or even imagine ending their career at home to that kind of crowd response. But the response in the waning moments was only an extension of the murmurs of increasingly disinterested and disappointed fans at War Memorial Gymnasium during the game, groans that were difficult to escape in such an intimate environment.
USF's seniors had an opportunity to end their collegiate careers on a high note. Coming off a major upset of the Brigham Young Cougars in Provo - among the biggest wins in program history, much less their careers - they could have left with concrete evidence of building momentum at the end of Jennifer Azzi's second year as head coach. The team, this program, seemed to be on the cusp of...something.
There was an expectation, with perhaps a tinge of skepticism, of something new and what fans got was more of the same.
Portland statistical MVP: Natalie Day scores 20 in the second half
Portland guard Natalie Day fits the mold of a player who has tormented the Dons all season.
What WCC leading scorer Alex Cowling and Gonzaga's Katelan Redmon - to name a couple from conference play - have in common with Day is that they are athletic 6-foot wings who the Dons simply cannot come up with an effective answer for. USF guards end up being too small to guard these bigger, incapable of keeping them from having their way around the basket off hard drives; forwards struggle to match their quickness and have to choose between giving up a drive or a shot.
Day, the WCC's second-leading scorer behind Cowling, did a little bit of everything last night.
The senior's first points of the second half came on a layup off one of her three offensive rebounds to tie the game at 41. 30 seconds later, she caught the USF defense sleeping after a made layup and leaked out down court to score an easy fast break layup and draw contact for a free throw. The 45.6% 3-point shooter exchanged a pair of threes with USF under the 10-minute mark - one of the more exciting stretches of the game - to keep Portland up 16 points. Actually, she only got to the free throw line twice, but she didn't really have to any more than that because the jumper was working well enough - she shot 11-for-17 from the field for the game and 4-for-7 from beyond the arc. Defensively, Day was just as much a terror to the Dons, with 12 total rebounds, two blocks, and five steals, many of which USF did everything but gift wrap for her.
In summary, Day was everything the Dons have simply lacked all season: a consistent go-to performer that forces opponents to respond to them rather than the other way around. And Day was just part of the problem and arguably not even the most familiar one.
Key statistic: Portland outscores USF 22-10 in second chance points
Portland crushed USF on the boards 51.22% to 30.95%, which should hardly be surprising: USF has the lowest rebounding percentage in the WCC. But what made last night's effort particularly frustrating is that they were getting outhustled more often than they were getting out-sized.
Day clearly did her share of damage on the boards and on more than one occasion she was able to fly by a lackadaisical USF opponent and get a hand on the ball even if she couldn't secure it. And it was that basic hunger to get to the ball that ended up contributing to USF squandering a sizable first half lead.
With 7:50 remaining in the first half, the Dons were up 29-16 and had given up 7 second chance points already, leaving open the possibility that the Pilots would eventually exploit that instead of settling for threes as they did on 10 of 11 possessions straight during the middle of the first half. That's a large part of what happened: Portland decided they had an advantage outworking USF around the basket, scoring 6 second chance points and shooting 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the final 8 minutes and head into halftime tied at 37 apiece.
Key Player: Casandra Thompson leads a 35-point effort from Portland's bench
After getting the offensive board and putback to even the score in the first half, Pilots sophomore Cassandra Thompson did the same with 4:53 left in the second half to put her team up 18 points, the largest lead of the game. And that consistent rebounding, particularly from the bench, ultimately broke the Dons' backs.
Thompson finished with a game-high tying 5 rebounds while fellow reserve Nakeisha Brown finished with 4 offensive rebounds, the pair embodying the energy off the bench that was responsible for changing the game as much as anything the Pilots did strategically. While Brown was helping Thompson on the boards, ReZina Teclemariam was helping her produce points tying her for second behind Day on the team with 11 points. While those three were working hard, Jasmine Wooton came off the bench for only 6 points but brought a ball handler with game-changing quickness that demanded a shift from launching threes almost indiscriminately to going to the hole when she entered the game with 7:27 left in the first half.
The Pilots, who entered the game tied with the Dons with only 3 wins in conference play, seemed to be coming at the Dons with waves that they simply couldn't navigate from all over the court. And on Senior Night, the Dons never found anyone to step up.
USF statistical MVP: Mel Khlok carries the team with 12 first half points
Although both teams were plagued by sloppy play, Portland switched in and out of zone defense to bring the USF offense to a grinding halt and force 7 turnovers that led to 10 points off turnovers in the final 8 minutes to head into the locker room at halftime tied. The turnovers continued in the second half, but just seemed to get more "senseless", as Azzi called them in her post game remarks.
After carrying the team with 12 first half points, junior guard Mel Khlok seemed to lose focus in the second half with 4 turnovers and more than one coming on ill-conceived cross-court passes through the defense. Though she had 4 steals of her own, Portland capitalized on these type of turnovers throughout the game to also outscore USF 23-12 in points off turnovers.
USF simply got outplayed in every phase of the game and didn't have that dominant star to carry them to victory the way Portland had Day.
As Azzi suggested, maybe USF just struggled to respond to the emotional high of beating BYU in Provo. Maybe the week-long layoff between games was more detrimental than beneficial. Maybe the emotion of the Senior Night ceremony before the game threw them off - one women's basketball coach once commented that she did the pre-game ceremony once in her career, lost, and never did it again. Maybe it was the pressure of living up to their performance on the road against one of the best teams on the west coast that broke them.
Or maybe games like this, featuring the same familiar problems that have haunted them all season, are what made that BYU win such an obvious candidate for Upset of the Year - maybe they played over their heads.
Yet anyone who's watched the team this season has to have seen the improvement.
Their upset of the Cougars gave them their third conference win of the season, a mark they haven't hit since the 2008-09 season and they could exceed with a win in their final regular season game on Saturday. They had stretches - like the first half tonight or most of the game in Provo- when they played outstanding basketball that provided that some flicker of hope that they might be turning the corner. And with six underclassmen on the roster and Khlok showing the ability to carry the team at times, perhaps they will turn that corner next year.
But it was hard to feel any of that leaving War Memorial Gym last night after a disappointing and often sloppy home finale.