Last year, a University of South Florida victory against Villanova in the opening round of the Big East tournament was a surprise, as the Bulls were seeded 14th.
This year, in a second-round rematch, expectations were different for a favored USF, but the result was the same.
For the first time, the Bulls will play in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. More importantly, a 56-47 victory against Villanova on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden might have locked the Bulls into the NCAA Tournament's field of 68.
With the win, the Bulls (20-12) advanced to a quarterfinal matchup with third-seeded Notre Dame at 9 tonight (ESPN).
"Twelve wins plus a tournament win in this league and there are still questions,'' said USF coach Stan Heath, about the speculation of whether his team will make the NCAA Tournament. "I don't know why there should be, but there are. It's good fuel for us, and we continue to use whatever we can to keep us hungry and that'll feed our guys. When they hear those things, it motivates them."
Having already beaten Villanova (13-19, 5-14) twice this season, by 17 and 14 points, the sixth-seeded Bulls got off to a quick start and looked to be well on their way to a third blowout of the Wildcats.
Swingman Victor Rudd Jr. scored eight of the Bulls' first 10 points as USF rushed to an early 14-2 lead. Rudd finished with 13 points.
"I was just trying to get things in the flow,'' Rudd Jr. said. "I got a couple of easy buckets and I got that three that was wide open. That's pretty much all it was. I was just trying to be aggressive.''
Boasting the league's top scoring defense, USF limited Villanova to 17 points on 20 percent shooting in the first half and never let the Wildcats get into a rhythm. In fact, it wasn't until midway through the second half when Villanova was able to score on back-to-back possessions.
The second half was more of the same as the Bulls bullied Villanova into the slow pace they've preferred all season, running the shot clock under five seconds on nearly every possession and playing a controlled half-court game.
For the game, Villanova shot 34 percent (17 of 50) from the field and just 19 percent (3 of 16) from 3-point range.
USF point guard Anthony Collins, who took a beating from Villanova's physical play, was key for USF. His running of the offense kept the game from becoming fast paced. He had a team-high 17 points.
"It's hard to beat a team three times, and Villanova is very aggressive,'' Heath said. "It's hard to run anything, but our defense has got us where we are right now. We've got to hang our hat on it. We've got to play quite a bit better (tonight), but we'll enjoy this for a moment."
Villanova guard Maalik Wayns, who starred in a 28-point performance in an opening round win over Rutgers on Tuesday night, was quieted by the defense, scoring just one point in the first half and shooting 21 percent from the field for the game. Wayns finished with nine points, but by the time he started consistently scoring, the game was all but decided.
Yarou Mouphtao led the Wildcats with 20 points.
"They're going to do damage in the NCAA Tournament because of the style they play with,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
USF returns to the court tonight to face Notre Dame, a team it lost to 60-49 on Jan. 10.
"(Being in the quarterfinals) is definitely a step in the right direction,'' Heath said. "It shows that our program has improved quite a bit. We want more, we're still very hungry."
NO. 6 SOUTH FLORIDA VS. NO. 3 NOTRE DAME
WHERE/WHEN: Madison Square Garden, New York; 9 p.m.
TV/RADIO: ESPN/620 AM
RECORDS: USF — 20-12, 12-6 Big East regular season; Notre Dame — 21-10, 13-5
NEED TO KNOW: The Bulls, coming off Wednesday night’s victory against No.14-seeded Villanova, are in the Big East Conference tournament quarterfinals for the first time. … Notre Dame beat USF 60-49 on Jan.10 at South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish used a 14-0 second-half run to put the game away. USF shot only 1-for-13 from 3-point range. … Notre Dame is the only team to beat Syracuse (30-1) this season, winning 67-58 at home on Jan.21. … For the fourth time in program history — and the second time in the past three years — USF has achieved a 20-victory season. … Notre Dame is trying to reach the Big East tournament semifinals for the fourth time. It is 0-3. … USF is 1-8 all-time against Notre Dame. Its only victory was a 69-63 win against No.21-ranked Notre Dame at the Sun Dome during the 2006-07 season.