Bulls fall to West Virginia, drop to No. 6 seed
TAMPA -- As expected, it was a defensive brawl between two Big East bubble teams, but West Virginia's defense stepped up late, handing USF just its second home loss of the season, 50-44, before a season-high 9,737 fans at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
USF had tied the game at 44-44 on a Toarlyn Fitzpatrick 3-pointer and had a chance to take the lead when USF senior Augustus Gilchrist, under the basket, had his shot swatted away by West Virginia's Kevin Jones. Jones would hit two free throws, and then West Virginia drew a charge by USF's Jawanza Poland, setting up more free throws with 13 seconds left to seal the win.
"We let one get away," said Bulls coach Stan Heath, whose team finished 14-2 in home games. "We're disappointed. We wanted the game bad. I don't think we channeled our mental approach the right way. We didn't do a lot of little things. ... I don't know if the magnitude of the game got to us, if we were just a little antsy, but we played what I'd call out of character."
USF (19-12, 12-6) has the comfort of knowing that 69 Big East teams have won 12 conference games and all 69 have made the NCAA Tournament, but the loss sends them back squarely on what's perceived to be the NCAA bubble, perhaps needing a win in the Big East tournament Wednesday to solidify their first NCAA bid in 20 years.
To add to the sting, Georgetown lost at Marquette, meaning the Bulls would have gotten the No. 4 seed in the Big East tournament and a double-bye to the league quarterfinals had they won. Instead, thanks to Cincinnati's win at Villanova, USF has the No. 6 seed in the tournament, playing Wednesday night at 9 against a team to be determined Tuesday night -- either St. John's, Rutgers or Villanova.
After Poland's charge, West Virginia had the ball up two, with a three-second differential between the game clock and shot clock, but USF let the clock run down to 13 seconds before fouling Bryant, West Virginia's best free-throw shooter. Heath said he didn't want his players to foul Bryant or Jones, but should have fouled earlier to give his team more time to score in response.
"That was my fault," Heath said. "We let the clock go down way too far. We should have fouled them a lot sooner, even if it had to be Bryant."
Jones led the Big East in scoring and rebounding and, by Heath's opinion, should be the league's player of the year. He came up big Saturday, with the "WVU" logo shaved into the top of his head. Jones finished with game highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds, and fellow senior Darryl "Truck" Bryant went 12-for-12 on free throws as part of his 16 points.
USF was led by freshman Anthony Collins' 11 points, though his four assists were offset by four turnovers. After only three turnovers in the first half, the Bulls had 10 in the second half, including three after they'd taken a four-point lead with a 10-1 run out of halftime.
USF's defense held West Virginia to 22 points under its season average -- the eighth straight game holding a team to 56 or less and at least 19 under its average -- but in the end, the Mountaineers' defense came up more down the stretch.
"We haven't been near as good defensively as we have been in the past, but I thought we were pretty good today," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "It's hard to win shooting 28 percent. Really hard to win. We made plays when we had to make plays."