NEW YORK – It’s been a long time coming for the USF Bulls and Big East Coach of the Year Stan Heath, but the moment has arrived.
For the first time in school history, the USF Bulls have advanced to the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament after they defeated the scrappy Villanova Wildcats 57-46 Wednesday, their third win over the Wildcats this season.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times and Villanova is very aggressive,” Heath said, “It’s hard to run anything, but our defense has got us where we are right now. We’ve got to hang our hat on it. We’ve got to play quite a bit better tomorrow, but we’ll enjoy this for a moment.”
As it has been all season, defense was the story of the game for the Bulls, and their top-ranked Big East defense lifted them to yet another milestone victory in what has turned into a history-making season for the USF basketball program.
The Bulls have now racked up nine consecutive games that allowed fewer than 60 points, and forced the Wildcats to play at their pace just one game after they put up 70 points against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the first round of the conference tournament.
“I think it was a statement for us,” Heath said, “We don’t give up a lot of baskets, and we do a good job of challenging shots. And these guys do a really great job of helping each other, which helps the team.”
USF was led by freshman sensation Anthony Collins, who had 17 points on 4-of-7 shooting, along with four assists. Victor Rudd Jr. carried a hot start to 13 points of his own, on 4-of-9 shooting from the field.
Eight of Rudd’s 13 points came in the first four minutes of the game, when the Bulls jumped out to a 10-2 lead. The Bulls led by as much as 13, and had a 27-17 lead going into the half, but the Wildcats did not go away easily.
“I was just trying to get things in the flow,” Rudd said. “I got a couple of easy buckets and I got that three that was wide open. That’s pretty much all it was. I was just trying to be aggressive.”
The Bulls had to sweat out the final minute of play, but managed to hit 10 of their 12 free-throw attempts in the final minutes to seal the victory – their second consecutive year in which they’ve defeated the Wildcats in the Big East Tournament. USF beat Villanova 70-69 in the opening round of last year’s conference tournament.
Villanova was led by Mouphtaou Yarou, who scored 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Yarou was the only Wildcat in double figures, due in large part to USF’s suffocating defense. The Bulls held the Wildcats to just 34 percent shooting and outrebounded Villanova 29-23. Their dominance on the boards helped them recover from a slew of turnovers, including seven from Collins.
With the strength of its 20 wins, including one win in the conference tournament, most experts consider USF a lock to be selected to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992.
“Twelve wins plus a tournament win in this league and there’s still questions,” Heath said. “I don’t know why there should be, but there are. It’s good fuel for us and we continue to use whatever we can to keep us hungry and that’ll feed our guys. When they hear those things, it motivates them.”
USF will next face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for a chance to reach the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. It will be a rematch of a game played on Jan. 10, which the Irish won 60-49. The game will tip off at 9 p.m. tomorrow.