TAMPA - It was there. Then it wasn’t.
That encapsulates the University of South Florida’s 73-65 loss against No.24-ranked Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon before 6,373 fans at the Sun Dome.
And maybe it explains USF’s fast-sinking season.
The Bulls (10-9, 1-6 Big East Conference) played an excellent first half, shooting 60.9 percent from the floor and building a 35-28 lead. Nine seconds into the second half, after Victor Rudd’s alley-oop dunk, the advantage was nine points.
But Notre Dame (16-4, 4-3) went on a 12-3 blitz and took control.
“Once they got momentum going in the second half, we just couldn’t get that sustainable run to get the momentum back,’’ said Bulls coach Stan Heath, whose last-place team has lost six of its past seven games.
USF suddenly couldn’t make shots (38.5 percent in the second half). It was destroyed on the boards (Notre Dame won the overall rebounding battle 34-17).
Irish coach Mike Brey said the key was better defensive attention on USF sophomore point guard Anthony Collins (12 points, eight assists, two turnovers).
“He keeps putting pressure on you and keeps getting into the lane deeper and deeper,’’ Brey said. “If we didn’t fix that, we would’ve lost by 15. We did a much better job in the second half.’’
USF, which got 28 points off the bench from freshmen Zach LeDay (17) and JaVontae Hawkins (11), also contributed mightily to its demise.
The Bulls were 6-for-21 from 3-point range, including a 1-for-10 effort in the second half. Overall, the Irish were 9-for-19 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Notre Dame controlled the second-half rebounding 21-8, continually working into transition and getting easy baskets.
Rebounding has been a season-long weakness. Heath pointed to the loss of three seniors — Ron Anderson Jr., Augustus Gilchrist and Hugh Robertson — from last season’s NCAA tournament team.
“I think it’s obvious (that) we lost some experience on the front line,’’ Heath said. “Anderson really patrolled the middle and communicated so well. Gilchrist was 6-10, 240 and gave us some muscle and scoring inside. Hugh was a lockdown defender. Some of the things that are happening now, guys couldn’t get those looks (last season) because Hugh could just take a guy out.
“Experience and size are valuable commodities. We don’t have a lot of size or a lot of experience on the front line.’’
That notion wasn’t lost on Brey.
“They lost some studs on the front line,’’ Brey said. “They’re a very different team. With the way they get hot and shoot the ball, when Collins gets in there and kicks it out, anything can happen, especially here.’’
Not much happened for USF, though.
Its top three scorers were largely invisible. Rudd had seven points and one rebound. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick had seven points and was just 1-for-5 from 3-point range (stretching his cold streak to 8-for-39 in seven Big East games). Jawanza Poland was shut out in 17 minutes.
“My philosophy is to play inside-out, throw the ball into a big guy, create some things on the post, drive to the basket,’’ Heath said. “Even now and then we get inside baskets, but we are very reliant on the 3-point shot. … There are probably times when I’d say we shot it a little too quick. But sometimes a guy has a feel and you want them to play aggressively, so they take some of those shots.’’
Immediately after the game, the Bulls scattered to catch a late-afternoon flight to Milwaukee, where they will face Marquette on Monday night.
“That’s the schedule,’’ Heath said. “They give you a schedule and you’ve got to play it. It’s not easy. It’s a fast turnaround. We’ve got to put this one (loss to Notre Dame) behind us.’’
Second-half run lifts No. 24 Notre Dame over USF, 73-65
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