Dominique Jones scores 20, South Florida holds off Connecticut 75-68 to keep NCAA hopes alive

By Fred Goodall, AP
Saturday, March 6, 2010

USF beats UConn to keep NCAA hopes alive 75-68

TAMPA, Fla. — Surprising South Florida revived its hopes for a berth in the NCAA tournament. Jim Calhoun and struggling Connecticut will rely on a new starting lineup to try to do the same.

Dominique Jones scored 20 points and USF went 7-for-8 from the foul line in the final 1:04, helping the Bulls (19-11, 9-9 Big East) hold off the reeling Huskies (17-14, 7-11) 75-68 on Saturday.

The victory kept South Florida in contention for its first NCAA bid in 18 years, although coach Stan Heath believes his team still needs to win at least two games in the Big East tournament to bolster its case.

UConn, which has lost three straight, will have to do more. Maybe, a lot more after ending the regular season with three of its top four scorers on the bench after being removed by Calhoun with 16 minutes remaining.

The coach, who’s won two national titles and led the Huskies to the Final Four just a year ago, said Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards won’t be in the lineup when his team begins play in the conference tourney, either.

“Coaches decision,” said Calhoun, who emptied his bench after South Florida began the second half with a 12-1 run to open a 45-32 lead.

Kemba Walker and Ater Majok returned to help a freshman-led unit methodically climb back into the game, however Dyson, Robinson and Edwards — averaging 18.2, 15.2 and 10.8 points, respectively — did not play the rest of the way.

“That was my decision, and I thought they played magnificently,” Calhoun said, adding that he also pondered making a move as UConn struggled offensively during last Wednesday’s loss at Notre Dame.

Walker led Connecticut with 18 points, and Alex Oriakhi’s rebound dunk trimmed the Huskies’ deficit to 70-68 with 36 seconds left.

“We knew they weren’t going to lay down, that we were going to get a big punch from them,” Heath said. “We bent a little bit but we didn’t break.”

USF, which has won three straight following a tough stretch in which it lost four of five to damage its NCAA hopes, clinched the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament. The Bulls will face No. 16 seed DePaul in the opening round.

UConn is the No. 12 seed.

Augustus Gilchrist scored 17 points, Mike Mercer added 12 and Chris Howard finished with 11, including three free throws that settled USF after Connecticut pulled within two. Mercer added a pair of free throws to end any chance for a collapse in the closing seconds.

The Bulls, who will finish with a winning record for the first time since going 15-14 during the 2002-03 season, last made the NCAA tournament in 1992. The Bulls haven’t played in the NIT since 2002, so even a berth in that field would be a significant step forward.

Heath recalled being told before taking over the Bulls three years ago that USF would never be able to compete in a league as tough as the Big East. USF joined the league in 2005 and had an 11-57 record in conference play before this season.

“People were telling me you can’t win there. It’s too hard a job. The hardest job in America,” Heath said. “We’ve proven that’s not true. We can win here. We can have success here.”

UConn trailed 33-31 at the half, and Calhoun pulled his regulars after going 4 minutes without a field goal to start the second half.

With three freshmen — Oriakhi, Darius Smith and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel — and juniors Donnell Beverly and Charles Okwandu on the floor, the Huskies responded and began to whittle away at the deficit.

UConn pulled with four five times before Oriakhi’s dunk off a missed layup got the Huskies within 70-68. Walker scored 11 during the rally, but missed his last three shots and Beverly committed a key turnover down the stretch.

Beverly finished with eight points. Robinson finished with six points for the second straight game, and Dyson had four — 14 below his team-leading average — on 2-for-6 shooting in 22 minutes.

Calhoun called USF a “bubble” team that’s proven it deserves strong consideration for the NCAA tournament.

“Stan has done a great job of building this program. … I like their team,” Calhoun said. “He’s had enough patience to go through a couple of tough years, and he’s never wavered from what he wants to do.”

Heath said his team realizes the work is just beginning.

“We don’t want this to be a one-year wonder, and we don’t want to be satisfied where we are right now,” the USF coach said. “There still more basketball to play and some things we can accomplish. We want to do that.”

will not be displayed