SAN DIEGO — Victories such as the one the University of San Diego achieved Thursday night over Pepperdine, 76-74, in the USD Sports Center can go a long way toward lifting the sagging spirits of a young basketball team and a coach who has been getting older with each passing defeat this season.
Hank Egan, feeling young and exuberant again, raised his hands, jumped in the air and almost clicked his heels a couple of times after the Toreros beat the Waves and for the moment at least pushed aside the agonies of what has truly been a trying season.
USD (11-15, 3-10) not only clinched a seventh-place finish in the West Coast Athletic Conference regular-season standings, thereby avoiding a first-round post-season tournament matchup against 15th-ranked Loyola Marymount, but also treated a crowd of 1,833 fans to a preview of what they might be able to expect in the next few seasons.
Four freshmen--Dondi Bell, John Sayers, Randy Thompson and Kelvin Means--played key roles for USD, which for the first time this season didn't wilt in the closing moments of a tight game.
"Right now, there is a feeling of relief," said senior guard Danny Means, Kelvin's brother. "We've played a lot of close games this season and most of them have gotten away from us."
It looked like this one too might get away after the Toreros built a 49-42 lead early in the second half and still held a 73-69 cushion with 4:33 remaining.
Donny Moore hit a jumper for Pepperdine (16-10, 8-5), and Levy Middlebrooks made 1 of 2 free throws to make it 73-72 with 1:33 left.
But Marty Munn, who led USD with 21 points, answered with a three-pointer and the Toreros led, 76-72 with 1:04 left. Mike Cumberland made it 76-74 on a rebound basket at the 36-second mark, and Munn threw away a pass at the other end to give Pepperdine one last chance with 25 seconds to go.
But Craig Davis missed a three-point try with 10 seconds left, and Randy Thompson intercepted a desperation length of the court in-bounds pass with four seconds remaining to wrap it up.
"With a young team like we've had this year, it takes a long time to figure out what kind of team you're going to be," Egan said. "But, we're finally figuring it out. We know what kind of effort it takes to win and finally we were rewarded with a victory."
USD's youth showed in the first half but for a change it manifested itself in the form of enthusiasm instead of costly turnovers. Pepperdine jumped to a 33-21 lead with 5:53 remaining in the half but couldn't hold it
USD went on a 21-7 run before the buzzer and took a 42-40 halftime lead on a three-pointer by Munn.
"We thought we could come in here and play without emotion but we learned differently," Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick said. "I'd like to make excuses, but I can't. Hank had his team prepared well and they really got after us."