Bulls 'let it slip away,' fall to Irish in OT
NEW YORK -- USF had a 3-point lead and the ball with 40 seconds left in regulation, but things fell apart for the Bulls' upset bid, and Notre Dame held on to eliminate the Bulls with a 57-53 win in overtime in the Big East quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.
"We had it. I thought we just let it slip away in regulation," coach Stan Heath said. "We made some mistakes, didn't finish some plays that we should have finished."
Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins had all six of his points in overtime, hitting a huge 3-pointer for a four-point lead with 29 seconds left. USF got a 3-pointer by Toarlyn Fitzpatrick with 2.5 seconds left to cut the lead to one. The Bulls had a length-of-the-court pass with 1.0 seconds left, but it was thrown out of bounds, and Notre Dame closed out the game with free throws.
USF (20-13) made the Big East quarterfinals for the first time, but missed a great chance at an upset win that would have locked up their first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years. No team with 12 wins in the Big East has ever been left out of the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulls will have to wait to see how the bubble shakes out in the next three days.
"Hopefully, we erased any doubt in terms of what kind of basketball team we are, and proved that we belong. We definitely belong," Heath said. "That's just my opinion. ... Any time you have a team giving that kind of effort on the defensive end ... coaches really appreciate teams that sacrifice themselves on the defensive end."
Things unraveled in the final minute of regulation for USF, which led by 3 points with the ball and 40 seconds left. Guard Victor Rudd, who had a team-high 16 points, committed a turnover and fouled Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, leading to two free throws. Then with a one-point lead, Bulls guard Jawanza Poland missed an open layup, then missed the front end after being fouled, then fouled on a loose ball to send the Irish to the line. Pat Connaughton hit the first to tie the game, but missed a go-ahead shot, leaving the game tied with 15.9 seconds left. USF had the ball with a chance to win, but point guard Anthony Collins lost the ball in the final seconds and didn't get a shot off, sending the game to overtime.
Notre Dame (22-10) won despite going 4-for-20 in the second half, though the Irish had a decided advantage on fouls, taking 19 free throws while USF took just five.
Collins had run off the court with about 5:30 left, wincing in pain and holding his left hand. Two minutes later, he came back with two fingers taped together and almost had the win in regulation. Collins hit a jumper for a 3-point lead, then made a diving save as he crashed into the Notre Dame bench, finishing with 13 points, seven assists and five steals.
Just as the Bulls did two weeks ago at No. 2 Syracuse, they came out wildly hot, building a double-digit lead, only to see it gone just as quickly. The Bulls led 20-8 eight minutes in, with Collins getting eight of those points. But after hitting 8 of their first 10 shots, the Bulls went scoreless for more than nine minutes, and Notre Dame went on an 18-0 run for a 26-20 lead.
The Bulls found their stroke again just before halftime, and Hugh Robertson scored at the buzzer to cut Notre Dame's halftime lead to 28-26. Strangely, the two teams combined for just one offensive rebound in 27 missed shots in the first half. USF had only five turnovers, but Notre Dame had just three.
USF had advanced to the Big East quarterfinals for the first time in the school's seven years in the league, getting an opening-round bye, then advancing past 14th-seeded Villanova on Wednesday night, 56-47. USF came in with a 1-8 record against Notre Dame, with the only win coming in the Sun Dome in 2007.