Beat at the buzzer

No. 15 Marquette 70 USF 68

Bulls’ fans couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic finish to the men’s basketball game Sunday, but they were left wishing for a different result.

In a game with 15 lead changes against No. 15 Marquette, USF saw its chances of beating a ranked opponent flash in front of its collective eyes in a matter of three seconds after a steal and a buzzer-beating lay-up gave the Golden Eagles a 70-68 win.

The Bulls (11-11, 2-6) had a three-point lead with 58 seconds to go, but Marquette (19-4, 6-2) tied it up with a free throw and a field goal, giving USF the ball with 14 seconds left. Point guard Chris Howard then tried to find Melvin Buckley, but instead Jerel McNeal stole the ball and scored with no time left on the clock.

“Our players did a great job of communicating on the last play and making a switch on what they did,” Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean said. “It turned out to be one of the most dramatic finishes that I’ve ever personally been a part of.”

The Bulls trailed Marquette by as many as six points after halftime, but starting with a three-pointer by Jesus Verdejo with 13:14 left, USF took the lead six times in the second half.

“In the second half we weren’t quite in sync, and they keep coming at you,” Crean said. “I don’t want to sound corny, but that was truly like a 15-round fight. They just kept coming.”

The crowd of 4,313 at the Sun Dome made the venue the loudest it’s been since the Bulls upset No. 20 Georgetown last season, and after being stunned with the game’s ending, fans still gave USF a standing ovation while Marquette made its way to the visiting locker room, where the players could be heard celebrating from the hallway.

Howard has arguably been the Bulls’ top prospect since joining the team in 2005, but due to multiple knee injuries, Sunday’s loss was just his fifth career start. After the game, coach Robert McCullum let Howard know he still has complete trust in him.

“I told him, ‘Try and keep your head up; you’re going to win a lot of ballgames for us.’ And I told the team that as disappointing as it is, those are some of the lessons that sports and athletics teach you,” McCullum said. “You can play well, you can do what’s expected of you, and unfortunately you can still come up short.”

Despite committing USF’s most costly turnover of the season, Howard, with the help of his teammates, was able to walk away from the game, taking the loss as a learning experience.

“A lot of the guys were telling me, ‘This comes with leadership.’ To be a leader, the ball has to be in your hands,” Howard said. “Sometimes it’s going to be good, (and) sometimes it’s going to be bad.”

Senior McHugh Mattis, the nation’s third-best shot blocker, finished with six blocks to go along with a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds. Forward Melvin Buckley, also with nine rebounds, was second on the Bulls in scoring with 16 points.

“(Being) around (Mattis) everyday, I can’t help but just marvel at what he does – it’s frightening to me – against this caliber competition,” McCullum said. “It’s so pleasing to see he and Melvin Buckley play as well as they played in the same game.”

USF’s five Big East losses prior to Sunday all came by at least 11 points. Against the Golden Eagles, the Bulls had the ball with a chance to win the game or send it to overtime, and even though they couldn’t come away with the victory, competing with one of the nation’s best teams is still a confidence booster for a team trying to make it to its first Big East Tournament.

“It tells us we can play with anybody,” Howard said. “The game changed so many times – lead changes, Marquette made runs, we made runs – the game could’ve went either/or, but I think it opens a lot of eyes in the Big East that we’re going to come ready to play every game.”

With eight games remaining, USF is fighting for a spot in the 12-team tournament. The Bulls are in 14th place in the conference, but they’re only a game out of a three-way tie for 10th place. Crean said he thinks USF still has a good chance at making it to the postseason.

“I think they still have a shot. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Crean said. “The way they’re playing right now, the way they played against Rutgers (and) beating Cincinnati in here, they’re going to win games.”