Before they began to celebrate, the South Florida Bulls breathed a sigh of relief.
The final horn had just sounded in their 58-51 victory at Louisville Wednesday, and the Bulls fully grasped the magnitude of the situation.
“So much was at stake,” senior Ron Anderson said.
A spot near the top of the Big East standings, a road win against a quality opponent, a victory that will help its NCAA tournament hopes. South Florida touts 19 wins, but none were as big as the triumph over the Cardinals.
One season after finishing 3-13 in the Big East, Stan Heath’s squad will take a 12-5 conference record into Saturday’s regular-season finale against West Virginia. A win over the Mountaineers could boost the Bulls all the way to No. 2 in the league standings. More importantly, it would all but ensure South Florida a spot in the NCAA tournament.
If the Bulls are not already in.
Beating Louisville on the road Wednesday gave South Florida the one thing it lacked -- a victory against an upper-echelon Big East team away from home.
With underrated freshman point guard Anthony Collins teaming with Jawanza Poland in the backcourt and veterans such as Augustus Gilchrist and Anderson down low, South Florida has one of the better starting lineups in the Big East.
The Bulls average just 60 points a game and don’t have a single player with a double-digit scoring average. But opponents are scoring just 57.4 points and shooting only 39.2 percent against South Florida, making Heath’s squad one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Bulls haven’t allowed more than 56 points in a game in nearly a month.
On Thursday, Anderson, a senior, spoke with ESPN.com about South Florida’s success thus far and about what lies ahead.
What was it like in the locker room after you beat Louisville?
Ron Anderson: It was really emotional. Everyone understood how important the game was. Everyone wanted to win the game so bad that, finally, when the horn went off and there was no more time left, there was a big sigh of relief. We knew what was on the line. In order for us to continue to prove ourselves, we needed to get a quality win. Louisville is an excellent team. Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach. That’s as hard of a place as anywhere to win -- especially on Senior Night. I heard today that they hadn’t lost in 14 years on Senior Night. That’s an accomplishment in itself.
What did Coach Heath say to you in the locker room afterward?
RA: Just to be excited, to enjoy the moment, but not be satisfied. He told us we had to keep pushing. That’s the mentality of the team right now. That’s the phrase we use in the locker room: never be satisfied. When we don’t have any games left and Selection Sunday rolls around, we can sit back and see if we should be in the discussion. For now we’re just going to continue to work hard and go out and play the right way.
What’s the main thing that’s happened that’s enabled this team to turn itself around?
RA: We had talent last year, but we had mental lapses in games that caused us not to win. We couldn’t close out games. We had a lot of new guys last year, too. So with so many people having an extra year of experience ... it builds confidence and chemistry. Plus, we always knew we could play. When you put those pieces together and combine them with a great freshman point guard, you’ve got the recipe for success.
What makes this team so good on the defensive end?
RA: It’s a passion. We pride ourselves on that. We know that if we play good defense and get stops, our offense will fall into place and we’ll make shots. Defense is about willpower and refusing to let your man score. If you go out there with that mentality, just thinking that you’re not going to get scored on -- and you know you’re on the court with four other guys who feel the same way --things are really going to work in your favor. That’s been our backbone this season.
Did Coach Heath do anything to instill that passion in you, or did it just happen naturally?
RA: All of our practices have been really intense, especially since conference play has started. Just really intense, really competitive. Augustus Gilchrist and I are out there banging like it’s a real game. We don’t want anyone in our team to slack off on the court. It’s all about pride.
What’s next for this team?
RA: Things have been going really well, but Coach Heath and his staff have done an excellent job of making sure we stay the course. We’re taking it day by day. What’s next for this team is Saturday at noon against West Virginia. If we take care of business there, there’s a chance we could move up in the standings and get a double-bye in the Big East tournament. Guys know what’s at stake. We’re working hard for it. We’re just excited about the opportunity. We’re not just playing for us. We’re playing for our university. We’re playing for all the guys from past years that have put in blood, sweat and tears. Every year, people work hard and try to succeed. We’re just fortunate that everything fell into place this year. Honestly, when I leave after this year, I want to be able to look back and think that we started a tradition here.
You mentioned “playing for the university” ... what’s the buzz about you guys been like on campus? How much has the support increased?
RA: Just like with any team that begins to win, the buzz has picked up a little bit. We understand that with winning comes more support. We embrace that. People are starting to understand that good things happen when you work hard. I’m so excited for Saturday’s game. It’s my Senior Day. I feel like we’re going to have one of the biggest crowds here that the school has ever seen. They’re saying it’s going to be the biggest home game in 20 years. Still, all the outside distractions, we can’t really worry about right now.