University of South Florida junior guard Jawanza Poland sat motionless in the Bulls' locker room late Sunday night, trying to absorb the 62-56 defeat against the Ohio University Bobcats in the NCAA tournament Midwest Regional third-round game at the Bridgestone Arena.
"I can't believe it," Poland said. "I wanted to keep playing. I thought we had it."
For a few moments, it looked like the Bulls did have it.
When Bulls point guard Anthony Collins tossed an alley-oop pass to Poland with 9:25 remaining, he had a resounding dunk that put USF up 42-37. But Poland, with no defenders nearby to interfere with his downward drop, hung on the rim for a moment and was assessed a technical foul.
Nick Kellogg hit both technical free throws, cutting USF's lead to three.
Then, with Ohio getting possession, Kellogg buried a 3-pointer to tie the game. It allowed the Bobcats to take command as USF led only briefly at 44-43 the rest of the way.
"I thought somebody was around me and I was trying to break my fall," Poland said. "There's nothing I can do now. The ref made a call. That wasn't a good play for us, but we did a lot of things wrong tonight."
Ohio breaks through
USF's mantra was defense. Coming into Sunday night, the Bulls had held 12 consecutive opponents to 57 points or less. And those 12 opponents also were limited to at least 17 points below their scoring average.
Ohio broke both of those streaks by scoring 62 points, although the Bobcats needed a 41-point second half to do so.
USF's defensive emphasis is the biggest reason the Bulls made their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992 and came within one victory of facing No. 1-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Bulls coach Stan Heath will continue to look for those defensive-minded players.
"When I was part of a national championship team (at Michigan State), we put on our rings, 'Players play, tough players win,' " Heath said. "I'm looking for guys who are tough, guys who are competitive, guys who want to do the things necessary, the hard work, the intangible things, the dirty work necessary to win."
Bridgestone Arena was the site for two Florida teams (USF, Florida State) facing two Ohio teams (Ohio University, Cincinnati) for Sweet 16 spots. With Florida clinching its Sweet 16 spot by beating Norfolk State, Heath called the weekend a positive one for the state's college basketball fortunes.
"It means there's some very good basketball programs in our state and there are terrific players across the state as well," Heath said.
At the end of USF's postgame news conference, there was a call for two more questions from the media. USF athletic director Doug Woolard raised his hand, took the microphone from an NCAA attendant, introduced himself to a roomful of reporters and congratulated Heath on USF's breakthrough season. … Heath fell short of earning a $25,000 incentive bonus if the Bulls reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. He already earned bonuses of $15,000 (Big East Conference coach of the year) and $25,000 (NCAA tournament bid).