Irish hold off Bulls, escape with 67-60 win
TAMPA – Down 19 points in the second half, USF rallied to cut No. 19 Notre Dame’s lead to one point with five minutes to play, energizing a loud Sun Dome crowd hoping to see one more upset to finish out a long Big East season.
That was as close as the Bulls would come, however, as USF finished its season with another promising near-miss, with the Irish escaping with a 67-60 win.
“This game was kind of a snapshot of our season,” coach Stan Heath said. “We battled a terrific team, went right down to the wire. It just didn’t happen for us. A valiant effort, but we just came up a little short again.”
USF (12-19, 3-15) finished with the same number of victories and conference wins as last season. But four of the last five losses were by a combined 13 points, and Saturday was another single-possession game in the closing minutes.
The Bulls trailed 60-58 with three minutes to play, but missed their next five shots and wasn’t closer than five points in the final minute before a crowd of 7,875, the most in the Sun Dome in two years.
USF freshman Dominique Jones had 20 points, but went 1-for-9 on 3-pointers; he and guard Jesus Verdejo keyed the 22-4 run that brought USF back from a 52-33 deficit.
“South Florida showed a lot of guts and fight to come roaring back on us,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I’m impressed with their athletic ability, and it gave us problems tonight.”
It was the final game for center Kentrell Gransberry, the Bulls' only scholarship senior, who clinched his second straight Big East rebounding crown with nine boards.
“It’s very tough,” he said of finishing his USF career. “I was watching Brett Favre the other day, and he said all good things come to an end someday.”
Gransberry finished with 11 points and nine rebounds while lining up against Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody, the Big East’s leading scorer. Harangody matched his average with 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting and had nine rebounds.
“He’s going to be the MVP of the league,” said Gransberry, who went 3-for-12 from the field but missed two free throws in the final eight minutes.
The Bulls got strong games from Verdejo (11 points, five assists) and junior forward B.J. Ajayi, who had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting and nine rebounds. Sophomore point guard Chris Howard had six assists and zero turnovers. Heath was pleased with the balanced scoring, and that three of his four players scoring in double digits will be back next season.
"That was a great formula for us early in the year," Heath said. "That's the kind of balance we need to have, where we're not dependent on one or two guys."
The Bulls, who knocked off Notre Dame in Tampa last season, finish their third season in the Big East in second-to-last place in the league standings. Notre Dame (24-6, 14-4) finishes tied for second, but the two teams weren't that far apart Saturday night.