When I found out I would be in the Bay Area for the season's opening weekend, I checked the schedules and found that four teams from our side of the Red Line would all be at one venue for the University of San Francisco's second annual Hilltop Challenge. Despite the fact that I was born in San Francisco and had spent the first 26 years of my life in the Bay Area, I had never been to a game at USF before, so this presented a perfect opportunity for me to kick off my small contribution to the 800 Games Project.
About two hours before tipoff my grandson Damon and I got in the car and headed west for the roughly 40-mile trip to War Memorial Gym. After enduring the usual Saturday night Bay Bridge traffic we started up the hill in the direction of Golden Gate Park toward the USF campus, driving right past the entrance just as the first game tipped off. This being a college campus, not to mention in San Francisco, parking was a bit of a challenge (I should have known this when the "Parking Information" link on the school's web site didn't work), but fortunately we were able to find a recently-vacated space a few blocks away and get into the gym early in the first half.
Following the recent trend of many of these early-season events, the Hilltop Challenge is not set up as an elimination tournament but instead as a three-day round-robin event affording each team the opportunity to play three games instead of the conventional two. Along with the host USF Dons this year's field includes the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (USF's opponent tonight), Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns, and North Dakota State Bison, with the latter two meeting in tonight's second game.
USF basketball has experienced more extreme highs and lows over its history than just about any other program on either side of the Red Line. Phil Woolpert's Dons won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 (including an undefeated 29-0 season in 1956) led by Bill Russell and KC Jones, and the team continued to be a regional power through most of the '60s and '70s, winning eight West Coast Conference championships in the ten-year period from 1972 through 1981. The uncovering of NCAA violations along with the sexual assault conviction of star player Quintin Dailey in 1982 led to a university-imposed "death penalty" which shut down the basketball program for three years. Since the program's reinstatement in 1985 USF has struggled to rebuild its winning tradition, generally finishing in the mid-to-lower levels of the conference it once dominated while Gonzaga and more recently St. Mary's have become the league's marquee teams.
Following the ill-conceived temporary hire of Eddie Sutton as head coach in the middle of the 2008 season, the university hired former Kansas star Rex Walters as its latest head coach. In Walters' third season last year the Dons had their best season since 2000, winning 19 games (including 10 in the WCC), leading to optimism on the Hilltop for the upcoming season.
War Memorial Gym opened shortly following the program's high point in 1958, built with funds raised after those championship seasons. Although it features a couple of more modern touches, including an sometimes-blinding pair of electronic advertising boards, War Memorial is still a classic on-campus gym where you can get a good view of the action from any of its 4,800 seats. We entered the gym's upper level and joined approximately 1,100 others early in the first half of the opening game between USF and Northern Arizona, both of whom had lost the previous evening in the first night of the Challenge.
The first half was a mostly back-and-forth affair, with neither team able to establish a lead, and the half ended with the Dons clinging to 28-26 lead. Following a short halftime three-on-three game played by some local kids, USF began to take control of the game early in the second half. With 14:17 remaining the Dons had slowly built up a 41-32 lead, working the ball inside on offense and forcing the Lumberjacks into too many missed shots (24% from the field in the second half). A 10-2 run gave USF a 55-38 lead with 6:20 to play, and the game was effectively over. Freshman guard Danny Cheek hit back-to-back threes to cut the lead to 13, but Northern Arizona could get no closer the rest of the way. With 2:38 remaining and a 64-46 lead Walters cleared his bench, getting his last two freshmen on the floor for the final minutes, and the Dons cruised to a 69-50 victory.
With the victory most of the fans happily filed out of the building before the second game even started, their disappointment over the previous night's defeat soothed to some extent by tonight's winning effort. It's too early to tell how the Dons' season will play out, but I hope to come back here again this season to see for myself.
at SAN FRANCISCO 69, NORTHERN ARIZONA 50 11/12/2011
NORTHERN ARIZONA 0-2 (0-0) -- S. Saldivar 1-5 0-0 2; J. Douglas 4-10 0-0 8; D. Norman 1-6 0-1 2; C. Gruber 4-6 4-4 14; E. Ekanem 1-6 0-0 2; M. Dunn 1-5 0-0 2; G. Bewernick 3-5 1-2 7; D. Cheek 4-8 2-2 13; M. Jacobsen 0-0 0-0 0; B. Olayinka 0-1 0-0 0; L. Flores 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-53 7-9 50. SAN FRANCISCO 1-1 (0-0) -- A. Caloiaro 2-10 2-2 7; M. Williams 7-11 0-0 16; R. Green 3-4 3-6 11; C. Doolin 1-4 4-4 6; D. O'Connor 0-4 5-6 5; C. Dickerson 4-7 4-6 12; P. Blackwell 2-2 2-11 6; A. Johnson 1-1 0-0 3; J. Raffington 1-1 1-1 3; C. Adams 0-1 0-0 0; K. Murphy 0-0 0-0 0; G. Hoffmann 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-45 21-36 69.
Three-point goals: NAU 5-16 (S. Saldivar 0-1; M. Dunn 0-4; D. Norman 0-1; J. Douglas 0-2; D. Cheek 3-5; C. Gruber 2-3), SF 6-18 (R. Green 2-3; A. Caloiaro 1-5; M. Williams 2-5; C. Dickerson 0-1; A. Johnson 1-1; C. Doolin 0-2; C. Adams 0-1); Rebounds: NAU 29 (S. Saldivar 6), SF 32 (A. Caloiaro 11); Assists: NAU 9 (S. Saldivar 2), SF 10 (C. Doolin 3); Total Fouls -- NAU 28, SF 16; Fouled Out: NAU-E. Ekanem; SF-None.