LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Stan Heath sprinted around the court looking for his wife, Ramona, to give her a kiss and begin a celebration that was reminiscent of Heath's greatest coaching success so far -- taking Kent State to the regional finals in 2002.
Two stops and 10 years later at South Florida, Heath believes the Bulls are on the cusp of big things, too.
Jawanza Poland scored 16 points and South Florida ruined No. 19 Louisville's senior night with a 58-51 victory Wednesday that gives the Bulls the signature win they have desperately sought for their NCAA tournament resume.
"Can they [keep us out]? I don't know. I hope not. It'd be a little disservice to our league and how strong it is, but we've just got to keep winning," said Heath, who also took Arkansas to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances before landing at South Florida in 2007. "We can't worry about it. We want to play great basketball down the stretch and we're starting to get better. We've got room for improvement, too."
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South Florida (19-11, 12-5 Big East) has won six of seven since a 30-point loss at Georgetown and was considered on the bubble with a game remaining at home against West Virginia on Saturday. Loud cheers could be heard in the Bulls' locker room immediately after the game.
"They could've cracked so many times," said Heath, who called it the program's biggest victory since he arrived. "On the road, Louisville, with so much on the line, I don't know history that well, but I know for me personally, it is."
The Cardinals (22-8, 10-7) had won their 10 previous home finales. Their two regular starting seniors made the biggest contributions with Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith scoring 14 points each.
But the Bulls went 8 of 10 from the free throw line in the final minute to seal the victory.
"We did what we were supposed to do," Heath said. "We closed extremely well, made some free throws, got the ball to the right guys."
Toarlyn Fitzpatrick scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Ron Anderson Jr. grabbed eight rebounds and Hugh Robertson added seven for a team that's grown by leaps and bounds since being blown out by 28 points at Kansas in December and 20 at Marquette in January before the debacle against the Hoyas.
In the most recent surge, none of the games has been pretty. Still, the Bulls keep winning while never scoring more than 65 points in their current streak, including a 46-45 win over Cincinnati coming into this one.
"Coach is just saying let's keep continuing to win and kick the door in," Fitzpatrick said. "Don't leave anything to question about South Florida being ready for the tournament. Just come in and kick the door in. Keep winning ball games and taking it one game at a time, that's pretty much our focus for the rest of the season."
With the game tied at 41, both sides scrapped through an ugly sequence.
Louisville's Russ Smith missed a 3-pointer long on a 4-on-3 break, the Bulls snagged the rebound and had a 3-on-2 advantage, but Robertson missed a follow-up dunk that had Heath putting his hands on his head in disbelief.
He would start smiling soon enough.
Augustus Gilchrist scored, Robertson made an acrobatic play off a miss by Gilchrist by bouncing it off the backboard and putting it back in to give the Bulls a 45-42 lead with 3:59 left. Poland hit a 3 that pushed the lead to six points.
Chris Smith answered with a three-point play that cut it to 48-45 and South Florida burned its final two timeouts with 1:22 left, including a disputed call when it appeared Fitzpatrick didn't maintain possession despite the bench being awarded a timeout.
On the ensuing inbounds play, Poland hit a jumper that made it 50-45 with 1:20 left and during another extended discussion by the officials, Louisville freshman Chane Behanan leaned against a courtside table, shaking his head while glancing at the scoreboard.
"They came out hungrier and where it was, this is the game to get to the NCAA tournament," Behanan said. "Everybody they brought into the game was tough and played their role and contributed. They were just a better basketball team and they showed it."
A 3-pointer by Kuric cut it to 51-48 with 39 seconds to go, but Fitzpatrick hit two free throws, freshman Anthony Collins added two more and Victor Rudd Jr. added the first of two to seal it and what could be an NCAA tournament bid.
"We want to be put in the conversation and everything, but we're really focused on us," Poland said. "We know we can go up against anybody and battle with the best."
The Cardinals looked disjointed throughout, never more apparent than the final possession of the first half when Peyton Siva waited much too long to initiate the offense, lost the ball briefly and was forced to take an awkward attempt at the baseline that barely grazed the rim as time expired with Louisville down 22-17.
It wouldn't get much better in the second half for the Cardinals, who have dropped three of their last five and have a trip looming at No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday.
"I thought about it a lot before this game that I wanted to steal their senior night, but I also wanted to win ours," Smith said. "Now, to make up for this, we have to go up there and beat them."
|Anthony Collins and the Bulls spoil the Cardinals' senior night, snapping L'ville's streak of 10 straight home finale wins. (AP)|
|South Florida (19-11) «||22||36||58|
|Louisville #19 (22-8)||17||34||51|
|SFL:J. Poland 16 Pts
SFL:R. Anderson Jr. 8 Reb
SFL:A. Collins 3 Ast
|LOU:K. Kuric 14 Pts
LOU:C. Behanan 7 Reb
LOU:P. Siva 3 Ast
|PLAYERS OF THE GAME|
|South Florida Bulls|
|H. Robertson, G||35||3-7||0-2||7||1||1||7|
|A. Collins, G||35||3-5||2-2||4||3||3||8|
|R. Anderson Jr., F||32||1-4||2-4||8||2||3||4|
|A. Gilchrist, F-C||24||4-9||0-0||3||0||3||8|
|V. Rudd Jr., F||20||0-4||1-2||5||2||1||1|
|T. Fitzpatrick, F||24||4-10||2-2||7||1||2||11|
|J. Poland, G||20||6-9||3-4||3||1||0||16|
|B. Nash, G||10||1-1||0-0||1||2||1||3|
|S. Noriega, G||Did Not Play|
|A. Damour, F||Did Not Play|
|M. McCloskey, G||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|K. Kuric, G-F||37||6-13||0-0||2||0||0||14|
|G. Dieng, C||32||1-4||1-2||5||1||3||3|
|P. Siva, G||31||2-7||0-0||4||3||1||4|
|C. Smith, G||28||4-7||3-3||3||2||4||14|
|J. Swopshire, F||13||0-1||0-0||3||0||2||0|
|C. Behanan, F||30||4-8||1-4||7||1||2||9|
|R. Smith, G||17||0-7||5-5||2||1||3||5|
|A. Nunez, F||4||0-3||0-0||0||1||1||0|
|Z. Price, C||4||0-0||0-0||1||0||1||0|
|K. Ware, G||3||1-1||0-0||0||0||0||2|
|T. Henderson, G||2||0-0||0-0||0||0||0||0|
|S. Van Treese, F||Did Not Play|
|E. Justice, G||Did Not Play|
|W. Blackshear, G-F||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|