NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Before the season began, no one remotely suggested the University of South Florida Bulls were capable of reaching the NCAA tournament, much less rising to within one victory of the Sweet 16.
So, even though the No. 12-seeded Bulls fell short, losing 62-56 against the No. 13 Ohio University Bobcats in a Midwest Region third-round game at the Bridgestone Arena, USF can still look back on its breakthrough season with pride.
Not on Sunday night.
Not in USF's locker room, filled with blank stares, tears and choked-up emotions. And not next Friday night, either, when the Bulls can only watch as Ohio (29-7) – and not USF – faces No. 1-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16 in St. Louis.
"I'm done, my college career is done," said Bulls senior Ron Anderson Jr. "But this has been the time of my life. You don't want it to end. It shouldn't have ended. It's just so hard to look around, to see all these faces and know we won't be together as a team any longer."
USF coach Stan Heath, whose team (22-14) was picked for 14th place in the Big East Conference's preseason poll, had the same feelings.
"This will sting with me until I die," Heath said. "Probably, once I wake up in the morning, I'll have a lot of pride and I'll feel like this team gave a lot. And they did. They sacrificed and they worked."
For most of Sunday night's game, those principles remained in play.
USF went down largely because of self-inflicted wounds.
Second-half momentum swung wildly on a USF intentional foul, then a technical foul, each of which led to five-point plays for Ohio.
Rudd's floater put USF up 31-26. But on the other end, Rudd was whistled for grabbing an Ohio player's jersey, by rule an intentional foul, even if inadvertent. Walter Offutt hit both free throws, then as Ohio got the possession, Offutt knocked down a 3-pointer to tie it 31-31.
Jawanza Poland, on an alley-oop pass from freshman point guard Anthony Collins, soared high for a resounding dunk with 9:25 remaining, giving USF a 42-37 lead. But Poland, even though a defender wasn't near the basket, hung on the rim and was assessed a technical foul. Ohio's Nick Kellogg hit both technical free throws, then he followed with a 3-pointer and it was tied again, 42-42.
"We pride ourselves in not beating ourselves," Heath said. "Momentum plays are momentum plays. We're a team that really feeds off of momentum. Normally, we get a dunk like that and I think it energizes our defense. We get excited and all of a sudden, we might get four, five, six, 10 stops in a row.
"When the play happened that way, I think it took a little bit of that fuel away from us. But it's part of the game. We just had to regroup."
USF never did.
After Ohio's five-point play following the technical on Poland, the Bulls led only briefly, 44-43, the rest of the way.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, were clutch in the second half. Overall, they were 9-for-18 from 3-point range and 19-for-25 from the free-throw line.
USF shot 43.5 overall from the field, but it was just 2-for-15 from 3-point range.
The Bulls were paced by Rudd, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, although he shot just 4-for-12 from the field. Collins added 13 points and six assists, while senior Augustus Gilchrist contributed 12 points and five rebounds.
"It's tough, real tough," Gilchrist said. "When you play the way we've been playing, you don't imagine it will end. You think you're just going to keep going. Then it ends. And it's tough."
Heath said this USF team set a foundation, though, one that will provide a standard for all future NCAA tournament-aspiring squads at the school.
"The No. 1 fundamental in basketball to me is being coachable, and this team was coachable," Heath said. "They listened. They bought in. They hugged each other. They lifted each other up.
"It didn't happen at the beginning. It happened as time went on. So it's really special to me. I just hate to see it end."
USF ends surprising NCAA run with loss to Ohio
Parents of disabled children vow to take on beer distributor Pepin in fight over horse therapy center land