SANTA CLARA -- It took Santa Clara only one game to let the West Coast Conference know the Broncos aren't the patsies they were a year ago.
The Broncos opened their conference schedule Wednesday night with a 74-69 victory over the San Francisco Dons at the Leavey Event Center, a tougher-than-it-had-to-be win that guaranteed this won't be a repeat of last season, when Santa Clara went a dismal 0-16 in conference play.
"We've had the good fortune of taking a negative and making it a positive," Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said of the victory. "It's all about the effort and the mental approach these guys have taken."
Any win under the circumstances had to be welcome, but if the Broncos were looking for a convincing one, this fell a little short. A 9-1 run to open the second half gave the Broncos a 19-point cushion that it had trouble protecting. San Francisco whittled that down to two points in the game's final minute, but could not get the basket that would have evened things up.
Forward Kevin Foster led the Broncos with 21 points, while center Marc Trasolini chipped in 14. Forward Cole Dickerson led the Dons' scoring with 17, while guard Cody Doolin added 16.
Santa Clara (12-3, 1-0) gave plenty of signals during the nonconference part of its schedule that it had the talent to be competitive in the WCC. The fact the Broncos trailed perennial power Duke by only two at the half on the road last Saturday before falling 90-77 was the latest evidence that the program has shaken off the ills of last season.
The Broncos, who never trailed after guard Brandon Clark scored on a layup with 5:50 left in the first half, built an 11-point lead in the opening 20 minutes, thanks largely to the outside shooting of Foster, who was 3 for 6 from beyond the three-point arc, and the work underneath the basket by Trasolini.
But a dry spell between Santa Clara field goals over a 7:26 stretch in the second half allowed USF to pull back into the game. Still, the Broncos regrouped and hit five of six free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.
"It's all experience," Trasolini said. "What happens in games, we're all going to respond and learn from what we do. Next time we're in that similar situation, I think we'll be fine."
Fully aware that students can't get back into the dorms until the following day, Keating made an out-of-pocket offer to help pack the stands.
"If any one of them don't have a room on campus, but can get back and want to come on Saturday," he said, "I want them to personally call the office and I will reimburse them up to $100 for a hotel room. I want all the students here."