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 the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
USF had tied the score at 44 on a Toarlyn Fitzpatrick 3-pointer and had a chance to take the lead when Bulls senior Augustus Gilchrist, under the basket, had his shot swatted away by West Virginia's Kevin Jones. Jones hit two free throws, then West Virginia drew a charge on USF's Jawanza Poland, setting up more free throws with 13 seconds left to seal the win in the regular-season finale.
"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 the NCAA bubble, perhaps needing a win in the conference tournament to solidify their first NCAA bid in 20 years.
Adding to the sting, Georgetown lost at Marquette, meaning the Bulls would have gotten the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament and a double bye to the quarterfinals had they won. Instead, thanks to Cincinnati's win at Villanova, USF has the No. 6 seed, playing Wednesday night at 9 against the Rutgers-Villanova winner on Tuesday.
After Poland's charge, the Mountaineers 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 they should have fouled earlier to give his team more time to score in response.
"That was my fault," he said. " … 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, in Heath's opinion, should be the league's player of the year. He was big Saturday, with the "WVU" logo shaved into the top of his head. Jones had game highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds, and fellow senior Darryl "Truck" Bryant went 12-for-12 on free throws en route to 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, 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 below its season average — the eighth straight game the Bulls held a team to 56 or fewer and at least 19 below its average — but in the end, the Mountaineers' defense came up more down the stretch. It held USF to 39.5 percent shooting from the field in the game, including 7-for-24 (29.2) in the first half.
"We haven't been near as good defensively as we have been in the past, but I thought we were pretty good" Saturday, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "It's hard to win shooting 28 percent (WVU was 15-of-52). … We made plays when we had to make plays."