NEW YORK — Leaving so soon?
USF's long-awaited first appearance at the Big East tournament was a short stay, as the 14th-seeded Bulls couldn't keep up with 11th-seeded Seton Hall, falling 68-54 in Tuesday night's opening round at Madison Square Garden.
The Bulls, making their tournament debut in their fourth Big East season, led 32-30 at halftime on a day already marked by surprising upsets. But USF (9-22) couldn't stop Pirates guard Jeremy Hazell, who came in as the league's No. 2 scorer and looked like it Tuesday, finishing with 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting.
"We knew this was a historic day for us … we certainly wanted to make it a special first day," coach Stan Heath said. "We're all disappointed it didn't happen. We wanted the game, we played very hard, but Seton Hall was better."
Hazell had nine points during a 14-2 run that gave Seton Hall (17-14) a 51-41 lead with 12 minutes to play. Meanwhile USF's top scorer, guard Dominique Jones, was held without a shot for the first 11 minutes of the second half, and point guard Chris Howard, who led USF's first-half charge with 11 points, didn't score again, limited by foul trouble.
USF had hoped to take a big step forward with an opening-round upset, but instead the Bulls have to settle for their first brief taste of Big East tournament play. The Bulls won four Big East games in Heath's second season, one more than in each of the previous two seasons.
"It was a good experience, for the younger guys and even me," said Jones, who led the Bulls with 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. "I kind of had butterflies at first, so I can only imagine how most of the other people on the team felt. Next year, we'll have a feel for how it is out there. We'll come out and be comfortable, and we'll be more effective on the court."
The Bulls trailed 16-6 early but finished the half on a 17-5 run to take the lead. It could have been more, as USF went 6-for-13 on free throws in the half.
USF was playing in a conference tournament for the first time in four years, going back to its final season in Conference USA. The Big East has allowed only its top 12 teams to play in the tournament in the past three years, and USF missed the cut each time.
But with all 16 teams included this season, the day started with a pair of upsets, and the Bulls were watching in the stands Tuesday afternoon as 16th-seeded DePaul, 0-18 in conference play, knocked off ninth-seeded Cincinnati, then 13th-seeded St. John's beat 12th-seeded Georgetown.
The tournament continues with four games today, and Seton Hall faces sixth-seeded Syracuse tonight. The league's top four teams get a second day off before opening play in Thursday's quarterfinals. With the top teams not playing yet, the arena was about half full, but the crowd was announced as a sellout of 19,375 fans, the fifth-largest ever to see USF play.
Athletic director Doug Woolard had been to the Big East tournament as a representative of USF, but Tuesday marked the first time he could sit in Madison Square Garden with a team to cheer for.
"It's a special experience for every athlete that gets to play in Madison Square Garden," Woolard said, sitting behind the Bulls' bench before the game.
|First round||Second round||Quarterfinals||Semifinals||Championship||Semifinals||Quarterfinals||Second round||First round|
|Cincinnati 57||No. 1 Louisville||No. 2 Pittsburgh||Notre Dame 61|
|No. 16 DePaul||Noon, ESPN||TBD||TBD||7 p.m., ESPN||No. 10 Notre Dame|
|DePaul 67||Noon, ESPN||No. 8/16||TBD||TBD||7 p.m., ESPN||Rutgers 50|
|No. 8 Providence||7 p.m., ESPN||9 p.m., ESPN||9 p.m., ESPN||No. 7 West Virginia|
|Georgetown 59||No. 4 Villanova||TBD||No. 3 UConn||Seton Hall 68|
|No. 13 St. John's||2 p.m., ESPN||TBD||TBD||9 p.m., ESPN||No. 11 Seton Hall|
|St. John's 64||2 p.m., ESPN||No. 5/13||TBD||9 p.m., ESPN||USF 54|
|No. 5 Marquette||No. 6 Syracuse|