By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Dropping a dozen to help the University of Portland upset nationally-ranked rival Gonzaga is Bobby Sharp’s reward for working hard to play major college basketball.

Another highlight in the Cardinal Newman and Santa Rosa Junior College first season at Portland was an 11-point effort in an 82-67 loss to then No. 1 Michigan State.

“I always envisioned myself playing at this level. But its pretty crazy,” Sharp said.

The junior has been Portland’s sixth man, providing instant offense and defending well enough to earn significant playing time.

A junior, Sharp scores 7 points a game and leads Portland in 3-pointers.

“I’m definitely here to shoot the ball,” Sharp said. “At first I was putting pressure on myself. Then I talked with the coaches and I just let the game come to me now.”

Sharp’s eager start is understandable. Growing up watching as much college basketball as he could find on television, Sharp wanted one day to play in some of the same major arenas.

Consistent improvement carried the all-Empire standout to all-California in junior college.

Portland brought in Sharp to help the Pilots try to win in the always tough West Coast Conference with the likes of perennial national powers Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Brigham Young. Portland coaches were confident Sharp would adjust to the major college game.

“It’s a big jump,” he said. “Everyone is bigger, stronger and has the skill sets.”

While he gives up a couple of inches and 20 pounds or so to most opposing shooting guards, Sharp has added muscle and smarts to compete for minutes. Portland returned all five starters and nine players overall from last year’s team, so Sharp worked hard to get into the main rotation.

On offense Sharp has improved at getting open by reading screens.

Sharp’s greater growth has been on defense, gaining experience in practice for closing out on shooters while also cutting off driving angles.

“I’ve had to get better,” he said. “No one wants to let the team down.”

A steady hand in Portland’s split with nationally-ranked teams, Sharp was cool and confident against the toughest competition.

Playing at two-time national champion Michigan State was a treat. That the Spartans then were ranked No. 1 added to Sharp’s sense that he had made the big time.

Scoring 11 points to help keep Portland close was a huge moment for Sharp.

“It was nice to give them a little bit of a challenge,” he said.

Even better is taking down a ranked opponent.

Not in nearly three decades had Portland defeated WCC rival Gonzaga. Playing strong from the opening tip Thursday, the Pilots took away enough of Gonzaga’s scoring deep and down in the low post to win convincingly.

Five players scored in double figures for Portland with Sharp contributing 12 points, all on 3-pointers.

“We started off well and from there we kind of kept it rolling,” Sharp said. “Growing up I always wanted to play Gonzaga. Beating them was kind of surreal for me. It was an awesome win.”

Opening WCC play with a handful of home games, Portland will be on the road often in weeks to come. Portland visits the Bay Area twice, at San Francisco and Santa Clara the last week of January and at St. Mary’s and Pacific a month later.

Finding a footing on the hardwood at Portland in the WCC has Sharp playing with the best in college basketball.

“It was a kind of pinch yourself moment at first,” he said. “I’ve finally gotten over that and am just playing basketball. It’s some serious ball.”