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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

NCAA Bid Is Exciting for Dons of New Era

West Regional: Mathews helps San Francisco revive some of the pride from the days of Bill Russell.

March 12, 1998| From Associated Press

Once it was the most respected college basketball program in the nation. Then it became an example of all that was wrong with college sports.

Now, for the first time since 1982, San Francisco is back in the NCAA tournament.

The Dons won the West Coast Conference tournament, and an automatic NCAA bid, with an 80-67 victory over Gonzaga. As fans danced around USF's players on the court after the game, they summed up their excitement in two words: "We're back!"

The Dons were seeded 14th in the West Regional and will play third-seeded Utah in the first round tonight at Boise, Idaho.

"It was a long 16 years, but this is something that these kids, the university and the city of San Francisco deserves," Don Coach Phil Mathews said. "We're going back to the NCAAs, where we belong."

Going to the NCAA tournament used to be expected at USF, which made 14 appearances through 1982. Included in that total were back-to-back national championships as Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led the Dons to record 60 straight wins in 1954-56.

The 1954-55 team had a 28-1 record and the 1955-56 team went 29-0. By the time the streak ended with a loss at Illinois in the 1956-57 season, the Dons had set a mark that has only been topped by UCLA's 88 straight in the early 1970s.

San Francisco, which also won an NIT title in 1949, still was a power in the 1970s with Bill Cartwright at center.

But two months after losing to Boston College in the first round of the 1982 NCAA tournament, the Jesuit school shut down its basketball program amid recruiting violations, alumni payments to players and All-American guard Quintin Dailey's sexual assault on a nursing student.

The program was revived in the 1985-86 season, but the Dons were losers for most of the next decade. Since Mathews was named coach in 1995, USF has had three winning seasons.

Against Gonzaga, with freshman Ra'oof Sadat scoring a career-high 18 points while filling in for foul-plagued star Hakeem Ward, the Dons (19-10) won the WCC tournament for the first time.

"We knew this game meant a lot for the program," Ward said. "This is a dream come true for me. I'm happy we all came together for this game."

The Dons, who struggled through a series of injuries to key players all year, will enter the NCAA tournament with a six-game winning streak that began after Mathews berated his team late in the season. USF had lost four of five games when the coach unloaded on his players in what he called "an explosive meeting" before a game against Loyola Marymount.

"I asked, 'How many of you guys have lost consistently?' And none of them raised their hands," Mathews said. "I challenged them and made some lineup changes and we haven't lost since."

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