Friday, February 23, 2018
Sports

USF Bulls save their best in NCAA Tournament rout of Cal Bears

DAYTON, Ohio

They played like a program that had waited, and waited, and waited for a night such as this.

They played as if they had been locked out of the gym for two decades. They played as if the basketballs had been in storage for most of their lifetimes. They played as if they were finally at the party, and they were having too far much fun to go home.

Oh, those magnificent USF Bulls, making up for lost time.

Is there anyone who thinks they don't belong in the NCAA Tournament now?

They were terrific, these Bulls. They overwhelmed a 24-win Cal team Wednesday night, smothering the Golden Bears offense and shredding their defense on their way to the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. The final score, 65-54, sounds far more merciful than this game actually was.

USF has never been better, not this season, maybe not in its history, than it was for the first 31 minutes of the game. The Bulls played with so much fire that Cal never had a chance. Heck, if someone had told the Bulls that an NCAA game could be so much fun, they might have tried harder to make it back to the tournament long ago.

These were the Bulls unleashed, and after this, no one else is going to call them ugly for some time. They ran. They shot. Why, you might even say they danced.

"We didn't want to come here for just one game," coach Stan Heath said afterward. "We wanted to prove a little bit that we deserve (to be here), and we belong and we're legit. I think the kids took that to heart. This was a step, but we went to take some more steps as well."

Only two other times in its history had USF played a game this big. In the 1990 NCAA Tournament, it lost by 12 to Arizona. In 1992, it lost by 15 to Georgetown. Yes, you could consider this the biggest in program history.

Who knew USF's players had a game like this in them? Who knew they might break it out once they got to the NCAAs? They shot 67 percent in the first half. They didn't allow Cal to score in the first five minutes, or in the last eight, of the first half. At one point, they were ahead by 32.

It was fairly obvious that Cal hadn't seen a defense like this. As far as offense, none of us had seen anything close from this team.

These are the Bulls, remember, and it seems as if every game is 42-42 with three minutes to play. This is the team that isn't supposed to be able to score, the team where a game of H-O-R-S-E can go on for a week.

"They certainly looked like they belonged tonight," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said.

Consider this validation, then, for a program and the league in which it belongs. USF certainly doesn't have to apologize to anyone after this game.

An effort like this, and frankly, the questions change. No one is going to ask if USF belongs anymore. They're going to ask how far the 12th-seeded Bulls can go. Can they beat fifth-seeded Temple on Friday? Maybe fourth-seeded Michigan on Sunday?

If they play like this, why not?

Give credit to Heath. He played an entire season of rope-a-dope. Who knew the Bulls could score like this? Who knew they could make Cal look so ineffective? Who knew they would make up for 20 years of being left out, dismissed and made fun of?

Seriously, Heath had suggested all week that USF wasn't simply going to Dayton to buy a T-shirt. As much as the Bulls had overachieved, he thought they had more in them.

Maybe they do. With USF, everyone has become so used to the low scores that no one has paid enough attention to how much improvement this team has made. Over their last 20 games, the Bulls are 14-6. The losses have come to Notre Dame, Marquette, Georgetown, Syracuse, West Virginia and Notre Dame (again) in the Big East tournament. All five of those teams are in the NCAA Tournament.

Guess what?

So is USF.

From the way it looked Wednesday night, it might be here for a while yet.

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