Since mid-January, University of South Florida junior guard Shaun Noriega logged a total of 27 minutes. He didn't play in eight games.
"I know he wants to play more, and he probably should play more,'' USF coach Stan Heath said. "Regardless, Shaun always keeps himself ready to play.''
He certainly was ready on Friday night.
Noriega made a major impact in USF's 58-44 victory against No. 5-seeded Temple in the NCAA tournament's Midwest Regional second-round game. The 12th-seeded Bulls (22-13) face the No. 13 Ohio Bobcats (28-7) in tonight's third-round game, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 in St. Louis.
"It's hard to comprehend, just wrapping my mind around that,'' Noriega said. "You can't look that far ahead or assume anything. I've learned that much.''
Noriega started 12 games early in the season, but lately he has been lodged deep on the bench, seemingly a square peg in a round hole. But he was needed Friday night. And he delivered.
His deep 3-pointer pulled the Bulls within four points, 19-15, after a brutal first half that saw USF miss 22 consecutive field goals and shoot 3-for-27 overall. In the second half, when USF's offense finally came alive, Noriega buried another 3-pointer that put the Bulls up for good, 24-21.
"I pride myself on hitting big shots, and I knew my team would need me eventually,'' said Noriega, who averages 3.7 points per game. "Everyone knows I can play basketball. I have great confidence in my ability. I do not doubt myself, although, yeah, sometimes it is hard.''
Before Friday night, Noriega was best known for heating up in last season's Big East tournament, when the Bulls upset Villanova. There also was the stunning turn of events on Feb. 11, when he played just one minute, yet hit a pair of 3-pointers that allowed USF to escape from what looked like a crippling loss against 15th-place Providence.
"Shaun is an undervalued player on this team,'' USF junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "He doesn't play a whole lot. A lot of people might question his defense or whatever. But he hits big shots. You've got to give him that.''
And according to Heath, you've got to credit Noriega for his persistence.
"Shaun is a lightning-in-a-bottle guy,'' Heath said. "A lot of guys in his situation might not have the right mindset or the right attitude. Everybody wants to play more and expand their role. But Shaun understands his value to this team and what he can do. In limited minutes, he's still a major part of why we're still playing.''