LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After the final horn sounded and the teams exchanged handshakes, Stan Heath's broad smile and bounce in his step said it all.
On Leap Day, USF took a major leap itself, beating Louisville 58-51 at the KFC Yum Center on Wednesday. Not only did it give the Bulls their 12th Big East victory, the win against the No. 19 Cardinals gave them the signature win they sought to secure a bid for the NCAA Tournament.
And after shaking hands with Louisville coach Rick Pitino, Heath ran across the court to kiss his wife, Ramona, and personally thank boosters Pam and Les Muma for their support of the program. Heath called the win the biggest in the program's history, and said it was his biggest since taking Kent State to the Elite Eight 10 years ago.
"I think so," he said. "On the road at Louisville (with) so much on the line. The guys really stepped up. They could have cracked anytime."
Beyond giving the Bulls (19-11, 12-5) a credible victory for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to review, the win also was their first in their last 12 tries against the Cardinals (22-8, 10-7), who now hold a 25-4 all-time record vs. USF.
"We know we can go against everybody," Bulls guard Jawanza Poland said. "All the wins we've had this year are signature wins."
If USF beats West Virginia and Notre Dame or Georgetown loses its regular-season finale, the Bulls get a bye for the first two rounds of the Big East tournament.
Poland, with 16 points, and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who added 11, came off the bench Wednesday and were involved in two plays that decided the game.
With 1:20 left, Poland hit a 19-foot baseline jumper off an inbounds pass to give USF a 50-45 lead. Seconds earlier, Fitzpatrick was involved in a controversial play. The junior forward drove and was stripped by Kyle Kuric. Fitzpatrick lunged to the floor after the loose ball and Heath was granted a timeout.
Replays indicated neither team had the ball when the time out was granted.
"I actually thought it was going to be (for) traveling," Fitzpatrick said about the whistle. "Coach wanted us to relax and not let the pressure get to us."
After calling another timeout when the Bulls couldn't inbound the ball, forward Victor Rudd found Poland on the opposite corner alone as the Cardinals crashed the paint.
"Nobody says we were going to win the game, but it definitely was a poor call," Pitino said.
The Bulls' deliberate, slow pace stymied the Cardinals, who never got into a rhythm, making as many turnovers as baskets (seven) in the first half. The Bulls held the Cardinals to nearly 20 points below their average (70.7).
"They've been waiting a long time to get into the tournament," Pitino said. "You have to give them a lot of credit."