By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - You would have thought Stan Heath gave his Bulls a motivational halftime speech that made the earth shake after what he witnessed in the opening period Friday night against Temple.
Three field goals.
Not three field goals by one player, but three total field goals by an entire USF team that caught fire and national attention against Cal two nights before in a blowout victory a plane ride away in Ohio.
It's not really in the Big East coach of the year's style to just go out and yell at his players for a head-scratching performance on offense. Heath, mostly calm and always cool in his own way, didn't fret one bit and stuck to the facts in crunch time.
"He read stats to us and he was like, "We're shooting 3-for-27 from the field and we're only down four points. Number-wise that's pretty bad offensively and we're only down four points,'" Toarlyn Fitzpatrick remembered vividly.
"When I saw the stat sheet, I said, 'How in the world are we down by four, five points?' I couldn't believe it myself," Heath said. "I felt, shoot, this is where we are, we're not going to play this poorly again. We have a legitimate chance."
The Bulls' trademark performance on defense was the glue that kept it all together and kept a team that only won 10 games last season believing that the second half would be a totally different ball game.
Turns out Heath and the players he thanked God for in Friday's postgame were right on target.
USF galloped its way to a 22-6 run after the break and sent fifth-seeded Temple home early in the NCAA tournament.
Anthony Collins did what he does best in the paint, Hugh Robertson threw down a dunk with authority, and Fitzpatrick and take-it-to-the-bank Victor Rudd Jr. connected from long range to provide USF with a facelift that Hollywood doctors would be proud of. Now it's USF 41, Temple 27 with 10:34 to go and it's panic time for the Owls.
"They called a timeout. Our bench was hyped, the fans were hyped and you could kind of see it in their eyes that they were in trouble," said Fitzpatrick, who hit two of USF's eight 3-pointers in the 58-44 victory.
The second half was superb but let us not forget the spark that was desperately needed in the first half when Shaun Noriega checked in and delivered. The sharp-shooting junior came off the bench and nailed a 3-pointer that should be remembered long after No. 22 hangs up his green and gold jersey for the final time.
USF was whiffing at delivering a counterpunch all first half when Heath gave little-used Noriega a shot in the spotlight with less than 3 minutes left before the halftime talk. Heath dialed up a triple screen designed to get Noriega the ball and the rest is history.
"Once I knew that my mouth starts watering and I just got ready. I came off; I was open in rhythm and just let it go. Don't think about it, just shoot it," said Noriega, who ended nearly a 16-minute USF drought without a field goal that proved to be the final points in a manageable 19-15 halftime deficit.
The Bulls' third field goal of the half ended up serving as a springboard for more 3-pointers and more ammunition for a relentless defense to keep working after USF collected its thoughts with Powerade in the locker room.
"A lot of guys would just be sad and their mind set and their attitude might not be right, but he's done a great job of staying with it," said Heath of Noriega. "Obviously every kid would want to play a little bit more and expand their role, but he understands when he comes in his value and how important he is to us."
What followed was a complete 180 by a USF offense that Heath wanted to be aggressive in the second half. The Bulls basically threw the first-half stat sheet in the garbage and went on to shoot 60 percent after the USF Sun Dolls were done with their halftime show.
"I wanted to see if we can get some transition, see if we can get some offensive put-backs, see if we could spread the floor, drive and kick," Heath said. "I thought the guys did a great job of doing that."
And, yeah, that USF defense was pretty good, too.
The Bulls held Temple to 35 percent from the floor after the break and never let the Owls' up-tempo offense get going. Temple's 44 points marked the program's lowest scoring total since all the way back in 1986 when the Owls managed to chalk up 43 against top-seeded Kansas.
"I'll have to say I think they're the best defensive team we played against all year," Temple's Ramone Moore said.
Now USF is alive and well in the dance and looking to punch the program's first-ever ticket to the Sweet 16 with a win over Ohio on Sunday. Call Friday a comeback, or more eloquently a revival for a Bulls team that believes it can play with anyone at this point.
"We're excited to see how far we can go," Fitzpatrick said. "If we keep playing defense the way we've been doing I don't think there is a team we should be afraid of."