Losers of four of their last five, the University of San Diego entered tonight in dire need of a win.
Leave it to a home match-up with Santa Clara, then, to get the team back on track. A 21-point effort from point guard Isaiah Wright (including 15 points in the second half) staved off attempts at a rally from the opposing Broncos and carried the home team to a 66-58 victory that saw them lead from start to finish.
“Very important,” head coach Lamont Smith said when asked about the significance of the win. “We talk about protecting home floor, so I was glad that we were able to do that even with some guys not playing real well.”
The star of the game was Wright, but usual sixth man Juwan Gray entered the starting line-up with positive results, chipping in 14 points and five rebounds while providing energy and athleticism at both ends of the floor.
“Juwan’s earned this,” Smith said. “I think for the last two months, he’s been playing at a high level, and we really liked our match-up with him starting. We talked to our team right around Christmas time, and told those guys that we may have some shuffling. We know we have plenty of guys who can play, and we’re always looking for that advantage to get the game going early.”
Meanwhile, guard Olin Carter III put in a strong performance at the defensive end, limiting Santa Clara’s top scorer, KJ Feagin, to just nine points and forcing him to foul out with more than four minutes left in the ballgame.
Carter III’s performance spurred a return by the Toreros’ to their defensive might of games past, who entered the night ranked second in the nation in three-point defense and in the top-25 in scoring defense, but had struggled from the perimeter in recent losses. On the night, USD allowed the Broncos to shoot just 23 percent from beyond the arc.
As a whole, the game was not one to watch for those who prefer their basketball to be easy on the eyes, with both teams riding possessions deep in the shot clock and struggling with ball security. The Toreros allowed 17 points off turnovers for the fourth straight game, leading Smith at times to plead with his players to take better care of the ball.
A bright spot for USD, however, was their free throw shooting, an area they have been prone to struggle with at various times this winter. As a squad, the Toreros shot 79.3 percent from the line, bringing a smile to their usually-stern head coach’s face.
“I’m glad we stepped up and made free throws,” Smith said. “Isaiah Wright was clutch for us, getting to the line 12 times, and he was really solid that way. That’s what you have to do, you have to be able to make free throws to win close games like this, and that’s what that was.”
In the bigger picture, the win marked USD’s 14th victory of the 2017-18 campaign, eclipsing the Toreros’ mark from last season and slotting the season in as Smith’s best to date at Alcala Park.
When asked about the significance of it, however, Smith remained focused on the larger goal of completing what has been a full-scale rebuild for the basketball program at USD.
“It means it’s number 14,” Smith said. “Again, I think we still haven’t reached our ceiling yet. I think we’re still not playing our best basketball, but when you can win and not play your best basketball, that’s exciting.”
Up to fourth in the WCC now with a 14-7 (5-4) mark, the Toreros have a challenging slate ahead. After a road match-up with Loyola Marymount on Saturday, the Toreros will have their toughest week of the season to look forward to: a midweek road game against No. 15 Gonzaga and a home date next Saturday with conference frontrunner and 16th-ranked St. Mary’s.
The Toreros’ only hope of a competitive ballgame with either WCC powerhouse will rest solidly in the hands of their defense. Take it as a good sign, then, that Lamont Smith’s squad returned to suffocating opposing offenses tonight.