After the San Francisco Dons' win over the Pepperdine Waves last Thursday, third-year coach Jennifer Azzi made a comment about that game that unfortunately foreshadowed USF's fate on Senior Day.
"Sometimes I think it's harder when you're on the other end of it - when you're the team that's lost the lead," Azzi said after coming back from a halftime deficit against Pepperdine.
With 16:09 left in the second half against the Loyola Marymount Lions on Senior Day last Saturday, USF's All-WCC Freshman Team point guard Zhane Dikes hit a pair of free throws to put her team up a surprising 16 points on the visitors. To that point, the game had been by far one of the gutsiest basketball performances I've ever witnessed for a program that was playing to match their best finish in conference play in the last decade while playing for a coach who is still in the early stages of building a legacy for herself and the program.
USF entered the game with just seven players and lost WCC All-Freshman team selection Taylor Proctor within the first three minutes of the game to a knee injury. That left them with only six players even suited up - including senior post Whitney Daniels, who would unknowingly be forced to celebrate her Senior Day by playing more minutes than she had all season after not even playing in the previous game with only eight USF players available - and you sat there just wondering when the Dons would finally run out of gas and have to settle for a moral victory and in awe that they hadn't.
Long story short, the LMU run eventually came due to a combination of foul trouble - Dikes would pick up her fourth foul a minute after hitting those free throws, forcing USF into replacing a point guard with the seldom-used Daniels - and what could only be described as fatigue turnovers, which included nine over the last 13 minutes in which ball handling suddenly became an urgent problem that had no solution.
"Honestly at halftime we just talked about, 'USF has come out and played tremendous that first half; were they going to be able to sustain it in the second half?" said first-year LMU coach Charity Elliot after the game. "We talked about that we have to raise our intensity, we have to contest shots a little bit harder. we have to rebound a little bit better. and knock some shots down - we just thought we were playing really soft.
"And again, I think the credit goes to USF and we didn't respond well in that first half. Second half we just just talked about playing strong, playing physical, playing smart. and we got some big baskets by some different people in that last 10 minutes."
As hard as USF played, it simply wasn't enough with their bench down to the bare minimum and making matters worse was that the allegiances of the crowd in their home gym was divided.
With just 24.6 seconds left and LMU up by one point with the ball, one side of the gym was chanting "U-S-F" while the fans across the gym behind the visiting bench chanted "L-M-U" in support of LMU senior Alex Cowling, who grew up across the Bay Bridge in Benicia, CA. As LMU made their comeback in the second half, a once-dormant visiting crowd came alive to give their team the boost they needed to not only get a win but almost celebrate a de facto Senior Day for Cowling on the War Memorial Gym floor.
"Alex being able to play at home in front of her family for the last time and having a comeback win like that I mean it kind of hopefully just solidifies what's going to be a phenomenal senior year for her," Elliot said when asked about the crowd support. "She's a tremendous kid, her family is just gold - they're just gold. It was just a great college basketball game."
And Cowling is certainly deserving of the support she received.
Having already secured the WCC's All-Time career scoring title on her own Senior Night in Los Angeles two days before, Cowling's second half performance in her last regular season game was like a final confirmation of what made her one the greatest scorers in conference history. After being held to just six points in the first half, Cowling scored 15 in the second half on 5-for-9 shooting, including seven points in the final three minutes punctuated by a 3-pointer with 1:17 left. With the momentum fully on LMU's side and fatigue setting in, USF didn't find a way to score in the final two minutes despite multiple opportunities.
Although it's inaccurate to say that Cowling's points came effortlessly, she's one of those players who always seemed to be in the right spot at the right time in the second half. A visibly exhausted USF team just couldn't catch up to her as she and the Lions caught a second wind.
"I thought USF had a great effort," Mary Hile-Nepfel, the winningest coach of the women's basketball program, remarked after the game. "I think it's a tough situation when you don't have all your players necessarily to go to. And I've been in this situation before when the other team is behind by 16 or whatever and they have nothing really to lose and they come at you with full court pressure and it's a mindset. And LMU just played much more aggressive in the second half and USF just got a little more tentative, forced some things. But USF, you know, in some respects is young, but the effort and the competitiveness on both ends I thought was good."
And after the game, Cowling's secondary senior celebration just continued.
While the Dons players were signing autographs for their fans in the lobby just outside the gym, their victorious opponents emerged from the visitor's lockerroom at War Memorial Gym to a sudden outburst of cheers from LMU faithful. It certainly wasn't done in a mocking way - LMU's effort in that game was as commendable as USF's in many ways - but it wasn't the way you wanted to see the seniors sent off the WCC tournament.
If you follow a team for three years - no matter the conference or their standing within it - you'll eventually have to develop some sort of attachment to it, pulling for each win to be a sign of something greater ahead. Watching that moment with a team that had literally played to the point where they had nothing else to give forced to watch their home gym become an altar for an opposing player was among the most disheartening parts of the entire day.
And that's how the Dons left the regular season before leaving for Las Vegas for the WCC tournament yesterday.
"Yeah, it's a tough loss, but hopefully at this time of the year you've learned that it's done, it's over and you move on,"
A win would've put USF in sixth place in the conference and afforded them the privilege of avoiding a play-in game, even if it was the Pepperdine team they had already beaten short-handed that awaited them. Instead, LMU moved into fifth place to avoid the play-in themselves while USF fell to eighth and is slated to play Pepperdine today.
"It's just your legs, it's having to prepare for a different opponent, it's having to play back-to-back-to-back," Elliot said when asked about the why avoiding that play-in game is so important. "It will be nice for us to get a little rest. We'll get a couple people back healthy with us and I think it's just a confidence builder."
That rest only adds to the significance of LMU winning that last regular season game against USF, their third in their final four.
The way the nine-team WCC tournament is structured (with the top two seeds getting double byes) LMU is matched up with the winner of today's play-in game in their first round contest and will either draw a limping opponent in USF or an opponent with just one conference win (coincidentally against USF) in Pepperdine. Should things go according to seeding in that game, LMU would get the BYU Cougars, a team that has struggled down the stretch and just fell to LMU on Thursday.
"Honestly, we just knew what the stakes were coming into this week," said Elliot. "Our primary goal was not to be in that play-in game and we knew that it would come down to this game and it certainly did."
To USF's advantage entering the post-season is that they know they can beat Pepperdine shorthanded after their 67-57 win on Thursday; they at least have the opportunity to wash away the taste of that bitter Senior Day loss to LMU. However, a win in today's play-in game would just pit USF against LMU once again, which has to be considered bittersweet: on the one hand, it's a chance at redemption against a team that rained on their Senior Day parade. On the other hand, it's an opponent that will come in with confidence, rest, and the conference's all-time leading scorer.
Beating a team three times, as LMU would be tasked with regardless of who they end up facing, is certainly not easy. But with Proctor's status in doubt after leaving Saturday's game and not returning due to what looked like a knee injury, USF will be forced to make whatever run they have left in them with just seven active players.
Yet while a run in the WCC tournament would certainly give USF a boost as they look into the future, there can be no looking ahead right now: all that matters today is taking care of business against Pepperdine for the opportunity to exact a little revenge against LMU.