March 8, 2008
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – A school-record 14 Big East victories. A second-place tie in the league standings. The No. 3 seed in next week’s conference tournament.
Notre Dame had plenty to play for in its regular season finale, and the 19th-ranked Fighting Irish accomplished all of those goals – and more – with a 67-60 victory over South Florida on Saturday night.
“I think we’re playing like one of the best teams in the country right now. We feel that we have a lot of momentum,” the team’s lone senior, Rob Kurz, said after the Irish (24-6, 14-4) won for the 11th time in 13 games to enter the postseason brimming with confidence. “We know it’s going to be a tough road to get to the championship game, but we feel like we’re as good as any team in the league, and we’re going to fight and leave it all on the floor.”
Luke Harangody scored 21 points and the Irish squandered most of a 19-point second-half lead before making four free throws in the closing seconds to hold on.
Kurz had 14 points before fouling out and Zach Hillesland added 10 for Notre Dame, which led 52-33 before USF (12-19, 3-15) put together a 22-4 run over a 10-minute span to pull within one with 5:14 to go.
The Irish struggled to put it away down the stretch, missing six of seven free throws before Ryan Ayers and Kyle McAlarney went to the foul line and made four in the final 23 seconds to keep the Irish in front.
“Our first 23 minutes, we were just Jekyll and Hyde,” USF coach Stan Heath said. “We did some things good, and all of the sudden we’d do some crazy things out there.”Dominique Jones led USF with 20 points. Mobolaji Ajayi keyed the Bulls’ comeback, scoring six during a 12-0 burst that started the second-half rally, and finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
The victory enabled Notre Dame to finish with the most Big East wins in school history (11 was the previous high in 2000-01 and 1996-97), as well as tie Louisville for second in the league standings.
As the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, the Irish will be one of four teams with a first-round bye.
“This team has taken us into new territory,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
Notre Dame never trailed, building an early 13-point lead and pulling away to its 19-point bulge after beginning the second half with a 16-6 run. The Irish were limited to baskets by Kurz and McAlarney while USF cut into its large deficit, and nearly let the game slip away by struggling late at the foul line.USF finished its first season under Heath by losing 15 of its last 17 games – all in the Big East, where the Bulls are 7-43 since entering the league from Conference USA three seasons ago.
Hillesland missed a pair of free throws with 3:19 left, then misfired twice on the front end of a one-and-one opportunities in the final 1:07. Tory Jackson also missed a crucial free throw before Ayers and McAlarney sealed it.
Despite a 15th-place finish in the league, Heath was encouraged by the way USF played the last month of the season.
The Bulls upset Syracuse, played Georgetown and Connecticut tough, and gave Notre Dame everything it could handle.
“What I’m very pleased about is the fact that down 18 or 19 – playing basically … our postseason game, our guys just continued to fight,” Heath said. “This game is kind of a snapshot of our season in a lot of ways.”