USD Basketball Teams Ready to Enter West Coast Conference Play


USD Basketball Teams Ready to Enter West Coast Conference Play

One team has a 9-3 overall record. The other is 7-4. The months of November and most of December have been about nonconference games — home, away, and even a few on a neutral court. A win streak for both teams. Defenses? Yeah, they’ve been matched against different styles these last few weeks and had a chance to see what they could do. Both earned a few big wins and both have had a double-digit loss on their resume so far.

A lot has happened in the early going for the University of San Diego’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. The men started 5-0, won key road games at Grand Canyon, New Mexico State and Colorado and when they got to 8-2, it marked the best start for a USD men’s basketball team in Division I history. The women started 3-0, suffered a pair of one-point losses at Hawaii in overtime and at San Diego State, but won two of three from Big West Conference teams and scored an impressive home win against Minnesota which came in with a 9-1 record.


So, what does the nonconference mean in late December? Aside from the teams’ records, it’s time to compartmentalize it because both teams are essentially 0-0 again. The West Coast Conference portion of the schedule, 18 games with no bye weeks and very few back-to-back home game weekends, begins this week.

The men’s team, for the first time under third-year head coach Lamont Smith, will open WCC play at home on Thursday, Dec. 28, at 6 p.m. against San Francisco, and then Saturday, Dec. 30 at 1 p.m. against Pepperdine. The women’s team, under the direction of 13th-year head coach Cindy Fisher, opens its WCC schedule Dec. 28 and 30 against San Francisco (7 p.m.) and Pepperdine (1 p.m.), respectively, on the road. Their first home game is Jan. 4 against Portland.

Here is a closer look at both USD teams heading into WCC play:

Men’s Basketball

“We know what’s ahead, this is what it’s all about,” said Lamont Smith about the start of WCC play. “It becomes so imperative how mentally tough you are during this stretch because everybody (in conference) knows everybody so well. But how much are you willing to sacrifice to execute? Coming off such a positive nonconference schedule, we want to keep the momentum going. That’s important to us.”

Momentum from a 9-3 season start is twofold. Smith, whose first two Torero teams won 9 and 13 games in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively, has a team this year that is learning — successfully so far — how to win games and play with confidence. But winning games means a commitment to playing solid defense. Defense was key component of Smith’s own game when he played for the Toreros in the late 1990s. Now as USD’s coach, Smith and his staff revealed that the successful WCC teams who’ve reached the NCAA Tournament have done so with strong defense.

“We needed to get better defensively and since the spring we’ve just been pounding it in our guys’ heads that this is going to be our identity. What I’ve enjoyed is that our guys have bought into it. I think it helped us very early on against some teams. We didn’t shoot the ball very well, but our defense allowed us to stay in the game. That builds our guys’ confidence.”

Offensively, the Toreros have four players averaging double figures — Isaiah Pineiro (15.1 points per game average), Isaiah Wright (13.5), Olin Carter III (12.2) and Tyler Williams (10.0). Cameron Neubauer, USD’s lone senior on the roster, is next with a 7.5 average.

Pineiro and Wright, both redshirt junior transfers, have made an immediate impact for USD this season. Redshirt sophomore Alex Floresca is back after sitting out last year due to shoulder surgery and Belgian freshman Yauhen Massalski has been a solid addition and sophomore Juwan Gray is back and will be a solid asset. Williams, Carter and Neubauer, though, are the most experienced returners who Smith and the Toreros will look to them in order to take a significant step up in the WCC standings.

“We’re still trying to figure out some things with some of our guys that I still think haven’t played at their highest level just yet but what excites me is that there’s still room for us to grow.”

Women’s Basketball

Cindy Fisher’s 13 seasons at USD makes her the dean of all West Coast Conference head coaches. That distinction holds tremendous value in terms of experience, knowing what her players can and can’t do and a good understanding of what the WCC opposition is capable of doing.

Many of those same intangibles are what Fisher, her coaching staff and fans hope to see from a senior-laden Torero roster.

“This group is hungry and we have a senior class that wants to end on a great note,” Fisher said, referring to Aubrey Ward-El, Sydney Williams and Maya Hood, who are three of the top players on the roster.

Ward-El leads the team with a 14.2 points per game average, making 15 of 46 three-point field goal attempts and making 78 percent of her free throws (37-47). Sydney Williams (12.7 ppg, 4.8 rebounds per game) has really come on during the nonconference schedule with a season-high 25 points against Minnesota, and 18 in a loss to Cal and again in a win against Long Beach State.

Hood, who was granted a medical redshirt year for her sixth and final season of college basketball, is “about 70 to 80 percent back and she keeps getting stronger and stronger,” Fisher said. But Hood’s contributions have been helpful in multiple ways with numerous games as USD’s leading rebounder (6.5 rpg) and chipping in 11.9 ppg and a team-high 23 steals.

Junior guard Alexandra Hagen has blossomed with three games as the team’s leading scorer, including 25 in the team’s Dec. 16 game against University of Texas-San Antonio. She is the team’s leading field-goal percentage shooter at 58 percent (54 of 92).

Important minutes and production are also expected from freshman point guard Myah Pace (38 assists, 17 steals and 6.5 ppg), redshirt junior forward Caroline Buhr (5.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 82 percent free-throw shooter) and sophomore forward Patricia Brossmann, a player who has averaged nearly 15 minutes a game off the bench, but who is recovering from a broken hand.

The team’s 7-4 start, including the two one-point losses, shows the competitiveness that Fisher and her staff like to see going into conference play.

“I think our team has really matured during nonconference play,” Fisher said. “Hagen played minimal minutes in the last few years and what she’s doing now is a big positive for us. We’ve also used different people at point guard and Myah Pace, while only a freshman, has done a good job.”

Fisher believes the conference could have more parity than in any other recent year and that opens the door for the Toreros despite the fact that they’re entering Thursday’s WCC opener after a 12-day layoff since their Dec. 16 win over UTSA.

“As long as I’ve been here, the WCC title might be up for grabs,” Fisher said. Being that is the assessment of the dean of the conference’s coaches, perhaps that’s some motivation for her squad, especially her seniors, to seize.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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