SAN FRANCISCO — The University of San Diego lost a very important basketball game Friday night, but it may not have lost its chance to appear in the NCAA tournament next week.
The Toreros' 14-game winning streak ended with a 64-63 loss to Pepperdine in the semifinals of the West Coast Athletic Conference tournament at the University of San Francisco.
Although the Toreros won the WCAC regular-season championship, they needed to win the conference tournament to be guaranteed a spot in the NCAA field.
Still, according to Coach Jim Harrick of Pepperdine, the Toreros belong in the NCAA tournament and have a chance of making it. Harrick recommends teams from the West to the NCAA selection committee.
"I had USD rated third in the West behind UNLV and UCLA, although it was close to a tossup between USD and Arizona," Harrick said.
"USD is no fluke, and I don't think the NCAA will penalize them for losing. Without a doubt, unequivocally, no question, they should be in the NCAA tournament."
USD (24-5) had beaten Pepperdine (12-17) twice during the regular season.
The Toreros made only 45.3% of their field goals and only one three-point basket, and they were plagued by poor free throw shooting down the stretch.
Their 7-foot center, Scott Thompson, who a day earlier was named the WCAC Player of the Year, led the team with 19 points and 8 rebounds. But Thompson, Paul Leonard and Mark Manor missed free throws in the final six minutes that could have given USD a victory.
The Toreros, who trailed most of the game because of Pepperdine's pressure defense, had a 58-54 lead with 6:45 to play when their troubles at the foul line began.
Thompson missed two free throws with 5:59 left in the game, and Leonard failed to convert a one-and-one chance with 4:39 left. Manor hit one of two free throws with 2:52 remaining before Thompson again failed on a one-and-one with 40 seconds left.
But the Toreros, trailing by 64-63, still had a chance to win when Jimmy Harrick, the Pepperdine coach's son, missed on a one-and-one with 33 seconds left.
After the teams traded turnovers, USD got the ball back with seven seconds to play, but guard Danny Means was unable to make a desperation scoop shot from under the basket as time expired.
Hank Egan, USD coach, gave Means credit for having enough nerve to take the final shot.
"There's a million guys who make you think they want the ball with the game on the line, but not too many really do," Egan said. "It takes a lot of courage in that situation, and I appreciate that Danny took the chance."
Egan conceded that the poor foul shooting was decisive in the outcome.
"We had struggled and struggled and got back in the game by playing some good defense, but our free-throw shooting escaped us down the stretch," he said. "It had been pretty good through the year."
The Toreros appeared flat to some observers Friday night. Egan disagreed.
"Flat had nothing to do with it," he said. "This is not the best we have played, but Pepperdine had something to do with it. They did a good job of pressuring us and making us take the ball to the other side of the floor, away from Scott, when we were on offense."
Harrick cited forward Levy Middlebrooks for his role in helping deny the ball to Thompson inside.
"Our strategy was to front him down low, back him on the mid-post and get a hand up on his shots," Harrick said.
Middlebrooks thought it worked pretty well.
"I tried to front him, move my feet, and get my hands up, and I think it bothered him a little," he said. "He was getting a little frustrated (in the second half)."
Middlebrooks and Eric White each scored 18 points to lead Pepperdine, which made 53.5% of its field goals.
The defeat left USD's fate up in the air, but Thompson and Egan weren't giving up.
"I'm optimistic," Thompson said. "I think we deserve to go to the NCAA (tournament). We've got a good club and I hope they take a good look at us."
Egan also thinks that the Toreros belong in the NCAA tournament regardless of their loss here.
"I think we deserve to play," Egan said. "We had a lot of close games and emotional things this year, and we strung together 14 straight wins, which is not easy to do. I hope that will be worth something."
Harrick made the case even more strongly.
"I don't see how you can keep 'em out," Harrick said. "It would be a crime if they don't get in."
The Toreros won't learn their fate until Sunday afternoon, when the NCAA tournament field will be announced.