Amid the rubble of 16 turnovers, 39% shooting and a nonexistent inside game, the University of San Diego may have found a point guard Saturday night.
Efrem Leonard, who started the past five games, came through with a season-high 24 points and led the Toreros to their third consecutive victory, 80-71, over U.S. International before 1,131 fans at the USD Sports Center.
The victory gave USD its third consecutive so-called city championship--it has beaten USIU and San Diego State the past three seasons--and a 6-4 record.
But the latest victory wasn't pretty. USD scored only nine points in the first 10 minutes, looked up and realized that the game was tied, 9-9.
"That first 10 minutes basically stunk," USD forward Mike Haupt said.
Although USD would go on to play a bit better, USIU never really got out of its early funk and wound up dropping to 6-10. The Gulls turned the ball over 24 times and shot just 43%.
USIU went 7:22 without a field goal early in the second half as USD rallied from a 42-41 deficit and took a 54-43 lead with 9:47 remaining.
USD Coach Hank Egan talked positively, even though his team suffered through some rough periods along the way.
"We're coming closer to achieving what we want, but it's not easy for us," Egan said. "I looked out there and saw us with three freshmen in the game at the same time during a critical stretch. That makes it tough for us to get an identity, but I think it's going to be a fight all season."
One thing USD had to fight for Saturday was a basket inside. Center Jim Pelton made just 1 of 9 shots and didn't get much help. Haupt, a starter, was 0 for 4, and backup center Keith Colvin missed his only two shots.
Luckily, Leonard was having his best game with the team. A junior college transfer from Mt. San Antonio College in Pomona, Leonard made 9 of 13 shots, two from three-point range, and kept USD close while it struggled early in the first half.
"I'm getting more confident all the time," Leonard said.
USIU Coach Gary Zarecky said it was his team's lack of confidence that caused defeat.
"We just don't believe we can beat a team like USD, and until we do, we're not going to be able to do it," Zarecky said. "We started playing tentatively in the second half, and they took advantage."
USIU took a one-point lead on a three-point shot by Rade Milutinovic with 17:09 left but didn't score another basket until the 9:47 mark.
Turnovers stopped the Gulls most of the time, and bad shot selection stopped them on other occasions.
USIU's leading scorer, Russ Heicke, didn't take a shot during the drought, as he was effectively removed from the USIU attack by USD's Danny Means.
Leonard scored on a driving layin and hit a three-pointer during a 13-1 USD run that decided the outcome.
USIU pulled within 65-58 with 3:44 left, but Heicke was called for fouling Marty Munn and compounded his problem by drawing a technical foul. Munn hit two free throws and the technical, and then Munn made a three-pointer to make it 71-58 with 3:06 to go.