March doesn’t get here until Thursday, but madness has already arrived on the University of South Florida campus.
A school-record crowd of 6,784 showed up at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Sunday to witness the USF men’s basketball team that is driving everyone a little insane.
Believe it. This is sheer madness happening at your doorstep.
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The Bulls haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 20 years, but they are making it hard for the selection committee to ignore
Sunday’s 46-45 triumph over Cincinnati was USF’s biggest statement yet. Despite a 10-5 Big East Conference record, the Bulls had not beaten a team with a winning record in league play until topping the Bearcats (10-6).
With the swoosh of four straight free throws to end the game, the Bulls (18-11, 11-5) eliminated a lot of the critics, who are living in the past.
This craziness has affected everyone. Even Cincinnati head coach Nick Cronin, who complimented the Bulls but attributed his team’s poor 3-point shooting to external reasons offering this tidbit: “Its Sunday morning in a hockey arena and I didn’t think we were going to make shots.”
The Bearcats (20-9) came into the game first in the Big East with 214 3-pointers facing a Bulls team that was second in 3-point field goal defense (30.3 percent).
It’s tough to shoot when you have a hand in your face nearly all the time and Cincinnati connected on only 3 of 15 attempts from beyond the arc.
Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick came into the game shooting 40 and 39 percent respectively from 3-point land. They missed a combined 5 of 6 attempts, and it wasn’t because the Tampa Bay Lightning was shooting pucks at them.
“Our defense is about having pride and stopping your man,” said USF freshman point guard Anthony Collins, who dropped in two free throws with three seconds left to win the game. “At the end, I was just trying to get into the lane and dish off or shoot, and I got fouled.”
Collins and many of his teammates talk as if they believe they are on a mission from some higher power, and the Bulls rise from the rubble is more than just about basketball.
“Once again, there are some things that happen in game you can’t really explain,” Collins said. “It shows our team that there is a bigger purpose than what we are doing on the court. I feel like the plays we are making are not really for us. They are for the university and overall success of the program.”
The Bulls are playing and thinking as if there are angels floating among the rafters of their home court, regardless of whether it’s at the Times Forum or two other arenas where they played their home games this season while the Sun Dome gets renovated.
Averaging a league-low 3,219 fans per home game, the Bulls got a shot of adrenalin from the large crowd. They did everything they could to get those people to come back.
“The crowd played an extremely huge role, and we really appreciate it,” said Ron Anderson, who converted two free throws with 26 seconds left to give the Bulls a 44-43 lead. “Honestly, that is a crowd that we would love to play in front of all year. Maybe someday we will get to that point. Obviously, we are making believers out of a lot of people.”
This was Cincinnati’s lowest point total of the season, but it should not come as a surprise. USF is first in the league in scoring defense (58.1 points per game) and have now held its last six opponents to 56 points or less holding each of them to at least 20 points below their average (Cincy was averaging 69.8).
Considered a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati came into the game with four victories over ranked teams, including a win over 17th-ranked Louisville in its last game. Hoops prognosticators say USF is on the outside looking in, because prior to this game its only “quality victory” came against Seton Hall (19-10).
Heath believes a little intervention from above and a strong defense is the way to punch a ticket to the post-season dance. The way Anderson’s first free throw bounced high up into the air and then fell through the net might make the coach a soothsayer in some eyes.
“I was saying a lot of prayers on Anderson’s free throws and it was a good bounce for us. Whatever rims we are using here we are going to take back to the Sun Dome because they seem to be working,” Heath said. “I was really proud of those guys, the way we handled adversity, persevered and came back. Anthony Collins is playing incredible. I don’t know how to explain it. He doesn’t play like a freshman and doesn’t act like a freshman. Before today we were definitely on the outside looking in. But we still need some wins.”
The Bulls are at Louisville on Wednesday and finish the regular season Saturday at home against West Virginia before heading to the Big East Tournament next week at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“We need to keep winning,” Heath said.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-2112.