Coach Stan Heath said earlier this year after a number of heart breaking losses, that he only wanted to see his players smile.
Tuesday night, they did.
Anthony Crater’s driving layup with 5.1 seconds left in the game put USF up one point over Villanova in the first round of the Big East tournament. Villanova’s last-ditch perimeter shot by Maalik Wayns bounced off the rim as time expired.
“Wow, it was a great game, and I’m really proud of our team,” Heath said to the Tampa Tribune.
“What a gutsy performance in the second half. We struggled in the first half, didn’t seem like we were guarding anything and I thought our guys in the second half came out and showed some resolve and some toughness and defended a lot better” he said.
The Bulls’ 70-69 victory marked the largest halftime comeback by a team in Big East tournament history – and they pulled it off in dramatic fashion.
Wayns made two free throws to put the Wildcats up three points with 1:43 remaining in the game. On the ensuing possession, Crater went airborne and forced a pass over his shoulder to Ron Anderson Jr. that went right to Villanova’s Corey Stokes. The Bulls fouled Wayns again on the other end.
Villanova had made all 20 of its free throws to that point. Wayns, however, missed the front end of the one-and-one giving possession back to the Bulls. USF then wasted another possession when Shaun Noriega slipped and the ball rolled out of bounds. Announcers blamed a large sticker put on the court by one of the tournament sponsors that they had seen players slip on before.
It looked as if turnovers would once again lead to a Bulls loss. Jawanza Poland fouled Stokes – the Wildcats’ top free-throw shooter at 90 percent on the season. But he missed his shot, giving the Bulls a chance to score, which Hugh Robertson did when he was sent to the line and sank both crucial free throws.
Trailing by one, USF desperately needed a stop on defense. Tight defense forced Wayns to throw a lob pass inbounds, which Crater stole under the basket for the go-ahead layup. USF led 68-67 when Toarlyn Fitzpatrick fouled Wayns on a drive. Wayns made both free throws to regain the lead.
Between the two free throws, Heath called a timeout to draw up the Bulls’ potential game-winning shot. Crater walked the ball up the court then dashed to the rim for the game-winning layup.
“The play where I stole it, I seen I had a step on Pena and he jumped too early so I made the steal and made the layup,” Crater said to the Tampa Tribune “And the last play the screen was designed for me to come off the screen but the rim was wide open and I took it.”
Wayns’ missed 3-pointer as time expired gave USF its first ever win over Villanova and a pass to the next round of the bracket.
Shaun Noriega led USF in scoring with 22 points, including six 3-pointers. The USF team that looked confused and overwhelmed in the first half emerged from the break with the renewed intensity needed for its historic comeback.
Wayns finished with a game-high 24 points for the Wildcats. Villanova didn’t score a field goal for the last eight minutes of the game and nearly held off the surging Bulls by making 22 of their 24 free- throw attempts.
Augustus Gilchrist had 16 points in a dominant low-post performance. He benefited from Wildcat big man Mouphtaou Yarou leaving the game with an injury late in the first half.
The win breathes new life into the Bulls’ season as they advance to take on seventh-seed Cincinnati tonight at 7.