Overview: Notre Dame is in the Big East tournament semifinals -- and the Fighting Irish are awfully fortunate to be there.
No. 6 seed South Florida had No. 3-seed Notre Dame on the ropes in the final minute of regulation Thursday night, but made several critical mistakes that allowed the game to go into overtime (see more below). And the Irish took care of business from there, winning 57-53.
It's a crushing loss for South Florida (20-13), which was looking to go to the Big East semis for the very first time. It also means the Bulls' NCAA tournament status is very much up in the air -- a win against Notre Dame (22-10) would have essentially sealed a bid to the Big Dance.
Turning point: The first half was a strange one. South Florida hit eight of its first 10 shots, opening up a 20-8 lead -- but then went into a nine-minute, 12-second drought, during which it fell behind 26-20. The Bulls closed to within 28-26 at intermission.
The game remained tight throughout the second half, and then things went haywire in the final minute. First Victor Rudd turned the ball over with 40 seconds left and the Bulls up 45-42, which led to two Notre Dame free throws. Then the Bulls inbounded the ball, broke the press and found Jawanza Poland for a wide-open layup -- but he missed it.
Poland was fouled in the scramble for the ball, went to the foul line -- and missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Then Poland tried to intercept a pass on defense and was whistled for a foul -- Pat Connaughton made one of two free throws, and we ended up in overtime.
The big play in OT was a trey by Eric Atkins -- who didn't score a single point in regulation -- that pushed Notre Dame's lead from 51-50 to 54-50 with 30 seconds remaining. South Florida's Toarlyn Fitzpatrick hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left to make it 54-53, then Notre Dame was fouled and hit one of two free throws. And on South Florida's last-ditch chance to tie or win the game, having to go the length of the floor with one second left, the Bulls threw the ball out of bounds. A perfect ending.
Key player: Notre Dame had three players in double figures, but the biggest player of the night was Atkins. The sophomore guard averages 12.4 points per game, but had a goose egg for 40 minutes, and it's tough to stay in a game mentally when you haven't broken through on the scoreboard for that long. But he finally got his chance in overtime, and he delivered when it counted most. Atkins had six points in overtime, and also had six assists in the game.
Rudd had 16 points to lead South Florida.
Key stat: Notre Dame outscored South Florida at the foul line, 13 to 3. South Florida shot just five free throws on the night.
Miscellaneous: South Florida point guard Anthony Collins suffered a finger injury on his left hand late in the second half, and sounded like he was in intense pain. He did return to the game with his fingers taped, but that's something to keep an eye on with USF going forward.
What's next: Notre Dame will play No. 7 seed Louisville in Friday night's second Big East semifinal, which should tip at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. The two teams met once in the regular season, and it was a thriller -- a 67-65 Notre Dame win in double overtime at Louisville.
For South Florida, it's nervous time, until Selection Sunday rolls around and the Bulls see if their name is called.