The 2017-18 University of San Diego men’s basketball team has made its money so far on stifling defense around the three-point line and a gritty lineup that runs eight deep.
In a road match-up with St. Mary’s, and looking for the program’s first win in Moraga since 2007, the Toreros turned to that formula again.
The opposing Gaels didn’t make a three-pointer until midway through the second half, and shot just 9.1 percent from behind the arc for the game.
Juwan Gray, a lanky forward coming off the Toreros’ bench, was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field on his way to scoring 16 points.
To that end, the game plan was executed as expected.
Unfortunately, the usual formula doesn’t account for dominant big men like the Gaels’ 6’11” star, Jock Landale.
Nor does it manage to parry scoring droughts like the one that left the Toreros going eight minutes without a make from the field in the second half.
The result: despite staking themselves to a slim 33-31 lead at halftime that rose to as high as nine in the latter half of the game, the Toreros ultimately fell for the first time in three weeks in suffering their first conference loss of the season.
Landale was busy early and often in this one, touching the ball on nearly every possession and piling up 13 first-half points as the undersized USD front court of Isaiah Pineiro, Yauhen Massalski, and Alex Floresca struggled to contain the West Coast Conference Player of the Year contender. His impact was felt on the defensive end as well, blocking three shots and preventing the Toreros’ offense from working into the paint consistently.
Despite Landale getting his, however, the Toreros climbed to a surprising lead behind athletic plays from guard Isaiah Wright and scoring from Pineiro and the aforementioned Gray.
But the team’s primary offensive wells — Wright, Pineiro, and guard Olin Carter III — went dry in the second half, as the Toreros went seven minutes without a point midway through the second half in a turnover-riddled drought. The dry spell coincided with an offensive takeover by St. Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar and allowed the Gaels to climb back into the ballgame, eventually taking their first lead of the game since the beginning of the first half.
The deficit was one USD could never fully recover from, and by the final whistle the visitors once again sat on the wrong side of the McKeon Pavilion scoreboard, 70-63. The defeat drops the Toreros to 12-4 (3-1) on the year, and moves them out of a tie for first in the WCC.
If there is a positive to be pulled from the disappointment, it is this: in a game many (including this author) expected St. Mary’s to run away with behind Landale, USD looked like the better team for exactly 33 of the 40 minutes of game time. In a season in which many saw them taking a big step forward out west, the Toreros asserted themselves as a legitimate threat to provide a plot twist or two to the usual Gonzaga-St. Mary’s WCC storyline. The loss did nothing to diminish their resume, which should place them firmly in the conversation for a tournament bid by season’s end. Helping them out further was Pacific’s upset victory over BYU, the Toreros’ primary threat for a top-three spot by season’s end.
However, it’s still no secret that moral victories and potential promise can only count for so much.
For now, leave the pat on the back and “Good effort” aside. When a team looks as good as USD did in Moraga, it’s hard not to be left wanting a little more.