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USF Bulls lose to Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Big East tournament

NEW YORK — USF had a three-point lead and the ball with 40 seconds left in regulation, but things fell apart for the upset. No. 23 Notre Dame eliminated the Bulls 57-53 in overtime late Thursday night in the Big East quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.

"We had it. I thought we just let it slip away in regulation," USF 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 3-pointer for a four-point lead with 29 seconds left. Sixth-seeded USF got a 3-pointer from Toarlyn Fitzpatrick with 2.5 seconds left to cut the lead to one. After a Notre Dame free throw, the Bulls' long inbounds pass with one second left was thrown out of bounds, and third-seeded 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 that would have locked up its 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 three 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 of a one-and-one, then committed a foul on a loose ball to send the Irish to the line. Pat Connaughton hit the first to tie the score at 45, but missed a go-ahead shot, leaving the score tied with 15.9 seconds left.

USF had the ball with a chance to win, but freshman 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 an advantage on fouls, taking 19 free throws while USF took 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. He hit a jumper for a three-point lead, then made a diving save as he crashed into the Notre Dame bench, finishing with 13 points, seven assists and five steals.

The Bulls led 20-8 eight minutes in. Then USF went scoreless for more than nine minutes, and Notre Dame took a 26-20 lead.

USF had advanced to the Big East quarterfinals for the first time in the school's seven years in the league, getting a bye, then advancing past 14th-seeded Villanova on Wednesday, 56-47.

USF came in with a 1-8 record against Notre Dame, with the only win coming in the Sun Dome in 2007.

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@tampabay.com.

USF’s Jawanza Poland leaves the court after the Bulls couldn’t protect a three-point lead in the final 40 seconds of regulation. Poland had a key series of mistakes at the end.

Associated Press

USF’s Jawanza Poland leaves the court after the Bulls couldn’t protect a three-point lead in the final 40 seconds of regulation. Poland had a key series of mistakes at the end.

USF Bulls lose to Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Big East tournament 03/09/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 10:28am]

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