NEW YORK — All season long, USF coach Stan Heath has told point guard Anthony Crater he needed to shoot more, to score more, to be more aggressive getting to the basket. With 30 seconds left in the Bulls' season, Crater listened to his coach.
The junior stole an inbounds lob in the backcourt and hit a layup to give USF the lead on Villanova with 23 seconds left, and then after the Wildcats hit two free throws to retake the lead, Crater went the length of the court for another layup with 5.1 seconds remaining, sparking the 15th-seeded Bulls to a 70-69 upset in the opening round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
"This season has been really rough, so for us to even come close to winning this game, it's just big. I'm speechless right now," said Crater, who had a game-high seven assists. "There's no better feeling than the win."
USF (10-22) is the second-lowest seed to win a Big East tournament game, and its 16-point halftime deficit is the biggest overcome in 32 years of Big East tournament play. The Bulls play against seventh-seeded Cincinnati tonight. The Bulls were led by Shaun Noriega's 22 points; the guard went 4-for-4 on 3-pointers in the first four minutes, finishing one point off his career high.
"The whole season, we've been coming up short," Noriega said. "Finally now, in the postseason, we actually finished strong. That gives us inspiration, gives us a feeling that the season wasn't all for nothing. We've improved. We can actually finish games."
This was the upset that had eluded the Bulls all season. Time and time again, USF played close to a top Big East team only to fade late. USF came out of the halftime break on a 7-0 run, and five times, the Bulls pulled within two only to see Villanova answer to extend its lead.
The Bulls got breaks in the final minute when Villanova (21-11) — which had been 20-for-20 on free throws — missed a pair of front ends. Hugh Robertson's free throws cut the lead to one with 27 seconds left, and then Crater stole the inbounds pass and gave USF the lead.
"I'm really happy for him," Heath said. "I'm really hard on him, and he's never given up. He continues to battle. I see the talent he's got, and I know he can do more. In the last 30 seconds, he showed everybody how much more he can do."
Villanova — one of four Big East teams USF hadn't beaten since joining the league in 2005 — answered with Maalik Wayns' two free throws, and after Crater's winner, Wayns put up a 3-pointer, which bounced off the rim to seal the Bulls' victory.
"I'm happy for these guys; to see them celebrate in the locker room," Heath said. "It's like a monkey or an elephant just came off our back. I'm hoping it carries over. The feeling with the players as a team is going to be very good (today)."