It’s not often Bulls fans rush the court after a men’s basketball game, but that’s what happens when the home team beats an opponent it’s not supposed to beat on paper.
That’s exactly what coach Robert McCullum has been asking for, and that’s what he got Saturday night.
Six days after a buzzer-beating loss to then-No. 15 Marquette, USF (12-11, 3-6) hung with another ranked opponent at the Sun Dome, and this time the result was a 69-63 win against No. 21 Notre Dame (18-5, 6-4).
The win gives the Bulls a winning record at home against Big East opponents. It also concludes a three-game home stand in which McCullum told his team it needed to win at least two. Along with a win against Rutgers to open the home stand, USF accomplished that task by beating its fourth ranked opponent in the past three seasons.
“We said we needed two of these three, and who knew we would get Notre Dame?” senior Melvin Buckley said. “We said that we needed to get a game that we weren’t supposed to win on paper, and we finally got one.”
Saturday’s win in front of a season-high 7,705 fans at the Sun Dome was the second meeting in two weeks between the Bulls and the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame forced USF into a fast-paced game in South Bend on Jan. 21, forcing the Bulls to take early shots and resulting in a 24-point win for the Irish.
Knowing that USF needed to milk the clock as much as possible this time against Notre Dame, McCullum called several players into his office Thursday and told them to run one or two plays. If they couldn’t get a layup, he said, then they should back the ball up and “run a quick hitter.” McCullum’s plan worked, as the Bulls held the Irish to 20 points below their season average.
“When we were (playing at Notre Dame) we let them bait us into taking some quick shots,” Buckley said. “(Saturday) we wanted to play the game slower, get shots with around 10 (or) 15 seconds left on the shot clock, and then the game would be favored toward us.”
On Jan. 28, USF nearly upset Marquette, but after point guard Chris Howard turned the ball over with three seconds left, the Golden Eagles beat the Bulls with a last-second layup.
“We thought we had the game (against Marquette) won,” Buckley said. “Tonight it was almost the same predicament. We were up four with about two minutes left, and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Not again. We’re going to buckle down, we’re going to play defense and we’re going to get this win.'”
Kentrell Gransberry, USF’s leading rebounder and only true center, sat out most of the first half with two early fouls, but senior McHugh Mattis picked up the slack inside. Mattis’s 23 points matched his career high, while his 16 rebounds were a career-best for the forward listed at 6-foot-6, 190 pounds.
“Is there a better player in the league pound-for-pound?” McCullum said while struggling to find the words to describe Mattis’s performance. “I wish he weighed what he’s listed in the program. The way he does it – the rebounds he gets, the plays he makes on both ends of the floor – you’re supposed to weigh 20 or 30 pounds more. That action is reserved for bigger, stronger guys.”
With seven games left to play, the Bulls are in a three-way tie for the 12th and final spot in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, and only two of their remaining opponents – Louisville and Syracuse – have winning records in conference play.
“Guys are going to be playing to get to New York City from now on,” Howard said. “At the beginning of the year you’re just trying to go out there and win as many games (as possible). Now you’re trying to get any win that you can.”