USF loses at home to St. John's, a blow to its NCAA Tournament hopes
If the Bulls do indeed miss out on the NCAA Tournament, Saturday’s loss to St. John’s may be one they agonize over for a while.
In a game USF needed – and was expected – to win, it came out flat and the Red Storm made them pay in a 74-58 upset at the Sun Dome, delivering a big blow to the Bulls tournament hopes. With four games left before the Big East Tournament, USF (16-10, 6-8) has very little margin for error, and a tough matchup at Villanova looming Wednesday.
USF coach Stan Heath said they don't have to worry about March Madness right now, "because this probably took us out of that equation."
"We can work ourselves back in it, but we don't have to worry about all that 'bubble' talk," he said.
The Bulls entered Saturday on a four-game home winning streak, and were facing a St. John’s team that boasted just 10 road wins the last six seasons. Two of those came against USF, and the Red Storm completed the feat again thanks to a strong first half in which they built an 11-point lead.
St. John’s did so by picking up several easy baskets in the key, in shooting 58 percent for the game (including 5-of-10 from 3-point range). The Bulls weren’t sharp on either side of the floor, turning the ball over, settling for too many outside shots, while getting outrebounded and out-hustled, for the most part.
"They were the better team today," senior guard Mike Mercer said. "We just didn't come with it. ..Everyone has to look in the mirror. I personally take blame because I didn't come out with the defensive intensity taht i should have came with. You can't start off games like that in the Big East, because if you get down big, it's really hard to come back. "
Even USF’s top scorer, junior Dominique Jones, was held scoreless the final 12 minutes of the half, and finished with 17. St. John's coach Norm Roberts said they made it a team job to guard Jones, shuffling several different players on him defensively today, and trying to force him to be a jump-shooter. It worked, as Jones was 6-for-18, including 3-of-8 from 3-point range.
Heath said Jones is most effective when he's driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line, and he had just three attempts today (2-for-3).
But the Bulls came to life in the second half, largely thanks to Mercer. Mercer, who is relishing his second chance with the Bulls after being dismissed from the team last year, helped spark a 15-3 run.
And that helped the Bulls pull to within 43-39 with just under 12 minutes left. But that was as close as USF would get, as the Red Storm answered every run with some big baskets of their own, including a few big 3-pointers.
St. John's is now 15-11, 5-9 in Big East play.
"We have to have a good defensive performance to give us a chance to win," Heath said. "And their defense just wasn't there today at all."
-- JOE SMITH