PROVIDENCE – Shaun Noriega was in the game for South Florida for one reason alone – to hit 3-point shots.
For someone who played exactly one minute, Noriega made a lasting impact in USF’s 55-48 win against a Providence College outfit that as head coach Ed Cooley noted “doesn’t have the basketball gods on our side.” A junior who entering Saturday had hoisted up 64 shots on the season with 51 of them coming from beyond the arc, Noriega delivered a pair of clutch makes from downtown that propelled the visiting Bulls to their eighth Big East win.
The funny thing is that even though the Friars stayed in a 2-3 zone for virtually the entire game, South Florida coach Stan Heath kept Noriega glued on the bench. Yet with the Bulls trailing 46-41 with 2:44 remaining, Heath turned to his sharpshooter, hoping that he could somehow breathe some life into a contest that was devoid of any sort of offensive flow.
With Vincent Council checking him, Noriega swished home a trey from the corner opposite the Bulls bench, one that made it a one-point white-knuckle affair at 2:20. An offensive foul by Kadeem Batts took away a hoop by Council and gave the Bulls another crack at running something with the intent of freeing Noriega.
Running off of what the USF hero-of-the-game dubbed “a triple screen,” Noriega banged home a three with 1:40 remaining, putting the visitors up at 48-47. Two attempts, two makes in exactly 60 seconds of floor time. Certainly it’s not bad work if you can get it, but as Noriega noted afterwards, he knows why Heath deploys him in certain situations as opposed to others.
“I definitely knew that my time would come,” stated Noriega, a Bull who has logged 77 minutes in seven Big East games and hasn’t made a 3-ball since Jan. 5. “I didn’t expect that at all. I guess you could say that I was in the moment.”
Heath was asked why he waited so long to take the wraps off of Noriega. South Florida shot 39 percent for the game, which looks almost downright tropical when comparing ice-cold Providence, which hit just 31 percent of its shots.
“He hasn’t played a lot lately and I didn’t want to put him in a bad spot,” noted Heath. “On Friday we had a talk about staying ready and he perked up and had a very good practice. In hindsight, it maybe would have been a little easier for us (if Noriega was in the game sooner rather than later), but it happened at the right time and we got it done.”
The two daggers from Noriega capped off a three-game week for the Friars that saw Cooley & Co. suffer three frustrating losses in completely different fashion. Missed free throws and the inability to come up with key rebounds were the culprits in last Sunday’s overtime loss to West Virginia. Tuesday night saw PC surrender a 19-point lead at Villanova in the final 14 minutes in an eventual two-point triumph by the Wildcats.
How close were the Friars over these pasts seven days? The three losses were by a combined 12 points. “This script is getting real old,” said a clearly dejected Cooley.
Though there was time for Providence to fight back, in essence the team played the final 82 seconds like it was trapped in some sort of nightmare. LaDontae Henton hit a floater on the baseline to put the Friars up 48-47 at 1:17, one of just three field goals the freshman managed in a seven-point effort – a far cry from the 33 points Henton hung on the Bulls two weeks ago in Tampa.
South Florida closed the game on a 14-2 run with two free throws from Anthony Collins (four points) giving the visitors a 49-48 advantage with 56.8 seconds remaining. The Bulls hit 8-of-10 free throws in the final minute, the only misses coming after Cooley was slapped with a technical with 18.4 ticks to go.
For someone who has displayed calm and patience during this difficult stretch, Cooley’s technical – coming with the Friars trailing 51-48 – was almost something directly out of left field. It appears that he too is growing weary of coaching a team that continues to come up short.
“Let me tell you why I got that technical foul,” said Cooley. “I want to fight for my players. If I feel there’s something I need to fight for, then the (officials) better get used to calling technical fouls because I believe my players deserve better.”
While Cooley’s heart is in the right place, the numbers on the stat sheet suggest that Providence was its own worst enemy. Gerard Coleman missed 9-of-10 shots in the opening 20 minutes on his way to a 1-for-10, two-point day. Council paced PC with 16 points, though he was just 5-for-12, one of the misses coming on a step-back three with the Friars looking for the tie with 39 seconds remaining.
The iron was also unkind to Bryce Cotton, the sophomore who shot 2-of-10 for six points. Victor Rudd Jr. led South Florida with 11 points and 10 rebounds, the only Bulls player to hit for double figures.
It was a week that began with a close call and ended with a close call for the Friars, who despite shooting 26 percent in the opening 20 minutes trailed by only three at halftime, 24-21.
“You’re just speechless in these instances,” said Cooley, his last-place Friars now 2-10 in Big East play.