Road struggles continue

No. 20 Notre Dame 82 USF 52

For most of the first half Sunday, it appeared the Bulls might have been on the way to their first Big East road win since joining the conference last season.

However, a 21-2 run by No. 20 Notre Dame (16-3, 4-2) to close out the first half led to another double-digit loss for USF – this time an 82-58 drubbing by the Fighting Irish.

The Bulls (10-10, 1-5) held two five-point leads early on and led Notre Dame until the 7:35 mark in the first half, but their failure to score a field goal in the last eight minutes and 59 seconds in the half kept them from staying in the game.

“That’s going to happen often where you’re going to be up early in the game,” coach Robert McCullum said. “If you’re really going to consider yourself to have a realistic shot of winning, then if you have a five-, six-point lead with five, six minutes left in the game, that’s one thing.”

Senior Melvin Buckley, whose hometown of Chicago is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Notre Dame, scored eight straight USF points to give the Bulls a 20-15 lead. But with forward McHugh Mattis in foul trouble early, USF wasn’t able to sustain its lead.”We wanted to come out and get off to a quick start, and that’s what we did,” said Buckley, who had about 25 family members and friends in attendance. “But we started getting into foul trouble, and then we hit a wall.”

Even when the Bulls got off to an early lead, McCullum knew the game’s pace was benefiting the Fighting Irish, who average a Big East best 84.1 points per game.

“The concern at that point was we knew the pace was more to their liking than it was to ours,” McCullum said. “We tried to make our guys aware going into the game that we’re not going to outscore them if it’s going to be an 80-point game.”

Center Kentrell Gransberry’s 23 points and 11 rebounds were both game highs, but starting guards Solomon Bozeman and Chris Howard combined for just 12 points, while Jesus Verdejo scored USF’s only two bench points.

“You always need balance. Anytime we don’t have balance we’re going to struggle,” McCullum said. “We’re not getting the scoring across the board that we need to beat teams like this.”

The Bulls’ goal of making it to the Big East Tournament in March is still on the minds of McCullum and his players.

Last season Notre Dame got the 12th and final seed with six wins, and while USF is tied for last place in the Big East with one win, the 11th and 12th place teams – Connecticut and Villanova – each have just two conference wins.

McCullum said with just one win separating six teams, he still feels making it to Madison Square Garden, where the tournament is held, is attainable.

The Bulls’ next three games (Rutgers, Marquette and Notre Dame) are at home, where they’ll try to keep their postseason hopes alive.

“These next three games will tell the tale for that,” Buckley said. “We have to at least get two of these next three games to keep ourselves in contention.”