The USD men’s basketball program elevated to Division I in 1979. Jimmy Carter occupied the Oval Office. Gas cost 86 cents a gallon. “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” and “Little House on the Prairie” ruled TV.
Since then, the Toreros had never opened a season 8-2. Until Tuesday night.
At 5,300 feet elevation, in Boulder, Colo., against the Pac-12’s Colorado Buffaloes, USD established history. Leading for all but 1 minute, 34 seconds, fighting off foul trouble and nailing free throws down the stretch, USD defeated the Buffaloes 69-59 before 6,512 at the Coors Events Center.
In Lamont Smith’s third season, the Toreros are 8-2 for the first time in the program’s 39-year Division I era. Colorado fell to 7-3.
“It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come as a team,” junior tri-captain Tyler Williams said by phone.
“It’s an honor to be on a team that created history,” added junior point guard Isaiah Wright.
The list of key contributors stretched nearly as long as the Toreros’ bench. Wright, a transfer from Utah, scored a game-high 20 points and did not foul out despite drawing his fourth personal with 7:35 to play. Playing his first game against an old Pac-12 rival motivated Wright.
“I think that had something to do with it,” he said.
Williams scored 13 points off the bench, nailing all eight of his free throws. The Toreros made 20 of 26 (76.9 percent) from the line, far better than their season average of 64.2 percent.
Isaiah Pineiro, USD’s leading scorer and rebounder, had 10 points and a team-best seven rebounds.
Then there was sophomore Juwan Gray. The lithe 6-foot-8 forward from Delaware played his best game of the season. He hit all three of his shots (two of them 3-pointers), scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots, and recorded two steals.
Said Smith in a postgame radio interview: “I told Juwan as he was coming off the floor, he may have played his best college basketball game. He was all over the floor.”
But as has been the Toreros’ M.O. all season, defense was the key. Colorado came in averaging 75 points a game. The Buffs had 21 at halftime. They shot 14 of 54 (24 percent) from the floor, 3 of 18 behind the arc.
“Defense is where we hold our hats,” Williams said. “That’s our identity. We understand if we can guard people for 40 minutes, rebound the ball, that’s going to put us in a great position to win the game.”
Colorado came into the game out-rebounding opponents by 7.5 per game. USD was minus 1.2 on the glass. Tuesday’s rebound totals: Toreros 38, Colorado 37. Despite big men Yauhen Massalski and Alex Floresca playing only a combined 20 minutes, USD outscored Colorado 22-20 in the paint.
Williams, who missed the first five games of the season with a broken big toe, is playing himself into game shape, scoring 37 points the past three games.
“Tyler is just our glue guy,” Smith said. “He keeps us together. He’s not afraid of the moment. I expect him to play like that.”
With home games against North Texas and Life Pacific before opening West Coast Conference play at home on Dec. 28 against USF, the Toreros are likely to be 10-2 when the Dons arrive.
Said Smith of the start: “I’m just so proud of our basketball team. These guys have stuck with us, believed in our system. Now they’re showing some great toughness, getting some gritty wins on the road.”
Norcross is a freelance writer.
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