USF has been close in many of its losses this season, but Saturday’s 78-55 home loss to No. 7 Notre Dame was not one of those games.
The Fighting Irish (21-4, 10-3) put the Bulls (8-18, 2-11) away immediately – taking a 24-3 lead in the first nine minutes of the game. Notre Dame’s backcourt passed circles around USF’s defense and finished the game with 23 team assists and only eight turnovers. The Irish had six players with double-digit point totals and led by as much as 38 in the second half.
“Our intensity wasn’t there on defense or offense – we weren’t ready to play from the get-go, and they took advantage of that and just pounded us,” said sophomore guard Shaun Noriega, who had a career game, despite a disappointing team performance.
Noriega scored 23 points, going 6-10 from the three-point line. Jarrid Famous had the Bulls’ second highest point total with only seven.
On defense, USF had no answers for the Irish who shot 67 percent in the first half.
“They play the right way,” coach Stan Heath said. “They play together out there on the court and share the basketball. That’s why they’re number seven in the country.”
Feeling a hangover effect from their disappointing loss to Marquette, the Bulls trailed by less than half at 76-38 with four minutes left to play. USF saved a bit of face by cutting the Notre Dame lead to 23 points before the final buzzer. Coach Stan Heath recognized their effort, but said the team had no excuse for lacking in the first 36 minutes.
“I’m in the locker room trying to figure out: are we scared of them, or are we just not tough enough? Either one is not good,” Heath said. “There were some guys that just didn’t seem like they were in the game – you try and find five guys who want to play.”
Heath admired the chemistry and teamwork Notre Dame exhibited in the game. USF has lacked in leadership this season – with players new to the league, new to their starting roles and new to each other.
“It’s something we’ve got to fix – really having that total leadership involved with the team where there’s guys in the locker room rallying the troops and keeping everybody moving forward,” Heath said. “(We have to) recruit leadership a little more and find guys that have that competitive fire that burns all the time, not just some of the time.”
The Bulls’ key playmakers appeared too frustrated with their personal struggles to organize a unified team effort. Augustus Gilchrist, Jawanza Poland and Anthony Crater saw limited minutes and combined for just six points.
The Bulls’ big men were uncharacteristically dominated and gave up 48 points in the paint. Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley worked hard off the bench to grab six offensive rebounds and finished with a team-high 18 points for Notre Dame.
Things only get tougher for the Bulls as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the No.4 Panthers, the best team in the Big East. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. Wednesday.