A raucous, record-high crowd, dressed in white “Madness” shirts handed out by USF Athletics, was not enough for the USF Bulls to pull out a win over a desperate Mountaineers squad looking to seal their tournament resume.
With an announced crowd of 9,737, by far the largest at the Tampa Bay Times Forum this season, the recipe was set for the Bulls to gut out a victory on Senior Day and lock themselves into an NCAA Tournament berth and a double bye in the Big East tournament. Things didn’t go as planned, however, as the Bulls fell to the gritty Mountaineers 50-44 Saturday.
“We’re taking it one day at a time right now – I know I have another game to play, so we’re just gonna take it one day at a time,” said senior forward Ron Anderson Jr., whose Senior Day was soured by a tough loss.
A game between the top ranked-defense in the Big East – USF and a team that is historically known for strong defense – West Virginia was, as expected, physical throughout, with the teams combining for 32 fouls. Yet free throws were not as plentiful, at least for the Bulls.
Mountaineer guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant was 12-12 from the free-throw stripe, attempting one more free throw than the entire Bulls lineup.
“They shot a ton of free throws, especially Truck Bryant in that second half,” coach Stan Heath said.
After a first half in which the Bulls shot just 7-24 from the field, including 1-of-10 from behind the 3-point line, USF started the second half on an 8-0 run, turning a 24-19 deficit into a 27-24 lead.
The second half was marked by runs from both teams, capped by a 3-pointer from Toarlyn Fitzpatrick at the 3:03 mark to tie the game. This drew a standing ovation from the crowd going into the timeout.
After Jawanza Poland was whistled for an offensive foul, the Mountaineers held the ball with 39.6 seconds to go, leading by two. The Bulls didn’t foul until there were just 13 seconds remaining, allowing 23 seconds to bleed off the clock.
“We were trying to get the ball in the right guy’s hands, then foul, and it just didn’t work out,” Anderson said. “Bryant just stepped up and made two big free throws.”
West Virginia won despite shooting just 29 percent from the field, led by 18 points from Kevin Jones and 16 from Bryant. The Bulls outshot the Mountaineers by 11 percent, but were 2-14 from 3-point range. They were led by 11 points from Anthony Collins, the only Bull in double figures.
“We played what I call out of character today,” Heath said. “We didn’t play bad. I’m proud of these guys, they’ve accomplished a lot this year. But we just weren’t doing the little things today, and I think that was the difference.”
USF will now head to the Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament, holding a sixth seed and a bye into the second round. They will face the winner of the first round game between the Villanova Wildcats and Rutgers Scarlet Knights.