TAMPA -- Bob Huggins thinks West Virginia has accomplished enough to make the NCAA tournament. He figures improved South Florida has done the same.
“I think they’re fine. ... They’re in the Top 50 in the RPI,” Huggins said of USF after his Mountaineers held off the Bulls 50-44 in a matchup Saturday of Big East teams trying to bolster their resumes for the NCAA selection committee. “There’s other people in our league that aren’t close to that RPI-wise.”
Darryl Bryant had 12 of his 16 points in the second half and West Virginia (19-12, 12-6) scored its last 10 points on free throws to win their conference regular season finale despite shooting less than 29 percent from the field. Kevin Jones made four free throws in the final 1:51 to finish with 18 points.
Anthony Collins had 11 points for USF (19-12, 12-6), which had won six of its previous seven games to build a strong case for being invited to the NCAA tournament.
“We let one get away, and we’re disappointed,” South Florida coach Stan Heath said. “We didn’t do a lot of little things. ... I don’t know if just the magnitude of the game got to us. I don’t know if we were just a little antsy, but we played what I call out of character today.”
Bryant missed nine of 11 shots from the floor, but the 6-foot-2 senior guard followed a jumper in the lane with a three-point play that put West Virginia ahead 41-39 with seven minutes to go. USF pulled even at 44 on Toarlyn Fitzpatrick’s long 3-pointer, however the Bulls were unable to score over the last three minutes.
The Mountaineers closed out their eighth consecutive victory over South Florida by going 9-for-10 from the foul line over the final 4:26. Bryant and Jones each made four down the stretch, and freshman Jabarie Hinds made one of two free throws for his only point of the game.
“We haven’t been near as good defensively as we have been in the past, but I thought we were pretty good today,” Huggins said. “It’s hard to win shooting 28 percent, really hard to win. We made plays when we had to make plays. We did a pretty good job, other than the beginning of the second half, of trying to make them try to do things other than what they wanted to do.
USF, looking for its first berth in the NCAA tournament in 20 years, entered the game coming off what Heath had described as the biggest victory in school history -- a seven-point road win over the Louisville that some people feel may have assured a spot in the Bulls in the 68-team NCAA field, regardless of what happens in next week’s Big East Tournament.
The Bulls won a program-best 12 games in the conference this season, and every Big East team that’s ever won that many league games has wound in the NCAA tournament.
Heath wouldn’t speculate on where the Bulls stood with the NCAA selection committee. The conference tournament begins Tuesday in New York.
“We’re in a new season now. There’s nothing to be ashamed about 12-6 in this league,” Heath said. “We had a heck of a Big East campaign. ...From here on out, everything is one and done.”
Defense has been the key to USF’s success. The Bulls are last in the conference in scoring offense, but have countered that by allow the fewest points in the league at just over 57 per game.
Since being routed 75-45 at Georgetown on Feb. 4, they’ve held eight consecutive opponents below 60 points, as well as at least 20 below their season’s average, to gradually state its case for what would be just the third NCAA berth in school history.
South Florida seniors Hugh Robertson, Ron Anderson, Jr. and Augustus Gilchrist were honored before the final home games of their career, but didn’t provide much offensive support for Collins, a freshman point guard who was the only Bulls player in double figure.
USF’s finally seems to be catching on with fans. A season-high crowd of 9,737 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum wore white t-shirts with one word printed on the front in large green letters: “Madness.”
West Virginia, meanwhile, solidified its NCAA resume despite shooting 28.8 percent. The Mountaineers were 2 of 12 on 3-point attempts, but offset that by playing solid defense -- forcing 13 turnovers and holding USF to 39.5 percent shooting -- and going 18 of 21 from the foul line. Bryant made all 12 of his free throws.
Huggins has taken West Virginia to the NCAA tournament the past four seasons. And, he’s confident the Mountaineers are headed there again.
“We’ve done what they said to do,” Huggins said. “They always say play a great schedule, do this and do that. We’ve done that.”