SAN FRANCISCO — Rex Walters glanced at the box score, set the piece of paper on the table and summed up his San Francisco team’s 71-61 loss to No. 5 Gonzaga on Saturday in a single sentence.
“It was, unfortunately, men playing against boys,” the coach said.
Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris bullied and bruised USF’s frontcourt on both ends of the floor to help the Bulldogs (25-2, 12-0 West Coast Conference) snap a three-game losing streak at War Memorial Gymnasium. Olynyk had 26 points and nine rebounds, and Harris added 17 points and 13 rebounds to dominate the more diminutive Dons inside.
“We got our butts kicked,” Walters said. “They’re physically stronger than us. They’re a really good team. Our guys played really, really hard. But it comes down to size. Size does matter.”
Cole Dickerson scored 15 points and Cody Doolin added 14 to help USF (11-15, 4-9) erase a 15-point first half deficit. Unlike the last three seasons when they stunned Gonzaga at home, though, the Bulldogs big men regrouped to overwhelm the diminutive Dons when it mattered most.
Olynyk shot 13 for 17 from the floor and Harris was 7 of 15. Both highlighted an 11-0 run in the final minutes that put Gonzaga ahead for good.
“There might be a little magic in this building or something,” Olynyk said. “We needed that to keep our run going. It’s huge. We haven’t won here the last three years. Since I’ve been here, we’d never won here. It’s a big-time win here. We’ve got to keep that going and finish off this conference.”
Gonzaga was the highest-ranked team to visit The Hilltop in 44 years. The Dons haven’t defeated a top-five team since March 23, 1956, when they downed fifth-ranked Iowa 83-71 to claim their second straight national title behind Bill Russell.
The Dons had defeated Gonzaga each of the last three seasons in San Francisco, including twice in overtime before winning 66-65 last season on Rashad Green’s floater in the lane with 3.3 seconds remaining. Yet Gonzaga has won 24 straight over USF in Spokane, including a 66-52 victory Jan. 28.
Something about The Hilltop seems to give Gonzaga headaches.
The Zags sure seemed ready at the start as they powered past the Dons with three quick dunks. That didn’t even include perhaps the prettiest play: Mike Hart lofting a halfcourt alley-oop that Olynyk laid up off the glass over a defender.
Olynyk, Harris and the rest of the Zags harassed the Dons on defense, too, keeping most everything on the perimeter. Olynyk added another layup to cap Gonzaga’s 19-4 run to open the game.
USF’s shooters finally started to find their stroke before the break, much the same way they had at home against the Bulldogs the past three seasons. Mark Tollefsen, Avry Holmes, Tim Derksen and Dickerson each hit a 3-pointer during a brief burst of offense that sliced Gonzaga’s lead to 30-25 late in the first half.
Dickerson swished another from beyond the arc to tie the score at 45 with 10:36 remaining. He waved his hands in the air while running down court, sending the home fans into a flurry for the frantic finish.
“We had some good looks. But really good teams can win these games, and we’re not a really good team,” Walters said. “We’re a team that at times can beat good teams. Right now, if we make shots we’re good. That’s not where I want to be. I want to be a team that we can really defend and guard and rebound.”
Gonzaga fans who sprinkled the stands in blue made most of the noise the rest of the way.
Olynyk converted three layups during an 11-0 spurt that put Gonzaga ahead 63-52 with 3:37 to play. He made his presence felt on both ends, and added a breakaway two-handed slam in the waning seconds to punctuate the victory.
After a 77-60 win across the bay at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night, the Bulldogs took a big step this weekend toward taking back the conference title that the Gaels wrestled away from them a year ago. They’ve already convinced most in the West Coast Conference that they deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Physically,” Walters said, “they’re a Final Four-caliber team.”