On The Road With John Rooke: South Florida

Another step forward. And for the moment, there are no backward steps to include on this journey.

Providence managed to subdue an improved South Florida Bulls team 77-72 Wednesday night at the Sun Dome in Tampa, FL, but not without another monster game from senior center Herbert Hill. In fact, after the game, Friar head coach Tim Welsh made that very comparison.

"He's playing like a monster, no question," Welsh told the Tampa Tribune. "Beyond great."

If the Friars reach post-season play beyond next week's Big East Tournament in New York, it is becoming more and more evident that they'll travel as far as Hill's broad shoulders can carry them. The fifth-year senior from Kinston, NC is enjoying quite the stretch run to his collegiate career, as he led PC with 28 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks against the Bulls Wednesday night. His two-game totals, including Syracuse at the Dunk this past Saturday, read 57 points, 31 rebounds and 14 blocked shots.

Monster, indeed. How about Player of the Year in the Big East?

"Herb is really carrying us right now," Welsh told listeners on the radio post-game show. "We'd like to get him some more help, and I think we will, but right now we're going to find him out on the floor. That was a priority for us tonight, and I thought we did a good job with it."

"This was a good win for us," Hill also told the post-game radio audience. "My teammates did a good job of finding me, and I just had it going tonight. There were a few I should have had that I missed on, and Kentrell Gransberry was tough inside. He's a really good player, maybe one of the most underrated in the Big East. But we're happy to get this win, and we want to keep it going."

The Friars came into the game hoping to let USF take the shots they wanted, within reason, from the outside. There was concern over the inside presence of Gransberry (career high 25 points, with 14 rebounds) and McHugh Mattis (11 points, 13 rebounds), but while those two did have success in the blocks, USF could manage only 2-18 from three-point range for the game. Leading scorer Melvin Buckley, a senior from Chicago, fired an "oh-fer" from outside the stripe – 0-11 – and was held to 9 total points, breaking a streak of 22 straight games scoring in double figures.

Providence methodically worked their way out to a seven point lead during the first half, leading by 29-22 before the Bulls took advantage of Friar turnovers over the last six minutes to pull into a tie at the break, 33-33. Of the 12 turnovers PC had in the first half, nine of them came during that final six minutes. While the end of the first half left a lot to be desired, the start to the second half became a focal point in the lockerroom.

"We just decided we had to take better care of the basketball," Hill said. "Coach told us that if we eliminated our mistakes, we would be in good shape. And, we wanted to speed up the tempo, and run whenever we could."

That, they did. The Friars jumped on the Bulls 10-1 out of the second half gate, running not only on defensive rebounds, but also on made baskets, when USF managed to put one in. The lead stretched to as much as 11 on five separate occasions, the last at 61-50 with 8:18 remaining. Yet, USF did not allow PC to pull away, utilizing the inside game of Gransberry for the most part to pull back within three points at 65-62, after a 12-4 run. Again, the Friars ran back, scoring seven unanswered points to lead again by 10, 72-62, with 3:04 left, and all appeared to be well in hand.

On their senior night, however, with no post-season play on the horizon, the Bulls decided not to back down. USF put together a 10-1 run, led by a three-pointer from freshman guard Solomon Bozeman and a key basket from freshman guard Chris Howard, to pull within one at 73-72 with :45 seconds remaining. The Friars got a key put-back basket from Jonathan Kale off of a Hill miss, then a breakaway layup from Sharaud Curry just before the buzzer to account for the final margin.

There was a palpable sense of relief in the post-game aftermath, but also the thought process that the job is not yet finished. One game remains to the regular season, at St. John's this Sunday afternoon in New York. It'll be another senior day encounter for the Friars, who hope to make it two wins in a row on the road for the first time this season, at the expense of another team hoping to celebrate.

If they can pull it off, it'll be another step forward – and a step taken at the right time of the year.

Game Notes:
Hill's numbers were extraordinary in the second half – 20 points, nine rebounds, 2-3 from the line and 9-13 from the floor. Overall, the Friars shot 55% against USF in the second half, with the increase in tempo leading to several easier scoring chances… Coach Welsh added this bit of insight during the radio post-game show, that Jim Boeheim told him Hill has his vote for player of the year in the league. Coaches can't vote for their own players… outside of Gransberry's numbers, the Bulls managed a mere 31% from the floor for the game… Gransberry was the nation's leading rebounder at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas two seasons ago, and matriculated to LSU for his junior season last year. He never got off of the bench, however, as the Tigers began their run to the Final Four. Gransberry, a Baton Rouge, LA native, transferred from the hometown school at midterm, and became eligible for the Bulls in December. He has now qualified with enough games played to be the leading rebounder in the Big East… the win in the Sun Dome was a first for the Friars, in their second game played in the facility. The only other trip to the USF campus came in November of 2002, where PC lost 68-64 to a Bulls team led by then-head coach Seth Greenberg, now at Virginia Tech… USF's head coach Robert McCullum, in his 4th season in Tampa and beginning to take some heat from the local media, is hoping that an infusion of transfers will boost the program, and increase his chances of sticking around. Three Division 1 transfers are currently on the roster (Gransberry, Jesus Verdejo (Arizona), Aris Williams (Valparaiso, out injured) and another is waiting in the wings for next December, with a mid-season transfer of Aaron Holmes from Florida State. McCullum has two years remaining on his current contract, according to the Tampa Tribune… one can't help but wonder how long it will be before the Bulls become a true force in the Big East, simply because of the size of their campus and student body. More than 42,000 students attend the largely-commuter school, which makes USF the biggest school in the league, and according to one school source, the largest student body and campus east of the Mississippi River. The word "sprawling" does not do the campus size justice. The football program, only 10 years old at the Division 1 level, has been to two straight bowl games, and won this past seasons' Papa John's.com Bowl in Birmingham, AL over East Carolina. While football draws well at Raymond James Stadium (also the home field for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers), basketball has not yet caught on, with only 3400 in attendance Wednesday night… seen and acknowledged on the trip to Florida were Friar Insider board denizens FriarSue and tpfkaFD… also in attendance were Toronto Blue Jays general manager J. P. Ricciardi, a Worcester native, and former Friar infielder John MacDonald, who is still going strong on the major league level for the Jays. They were taking a brief respite from spring training camp in Dunedin, FL to check out the Friars…on the way to Tampa, members of the travel party, including several of the players, got a particular kick out of a photo of Celtics coach Doc Rivers located at the Southwest Airlines departure gate at T.F. Green, as Southwest is a Celtics corporate sponsor. Why did the picture get their attention? Because in the background, clear as day, is our very own Big East Statbeast, John Zannini, sitting at the scorers' table, assisting Mike Gorman on a Celtics' television broadcast… the upcoming ACC Tournament will be in Tampa next week, at the home of the NHL's Lightning, the St. Pete Times Forum, where the Friars played Florida State in December. Next year, first and second round games in the 2008 NCAA Tournament will also be held in the Forum…another of the favorite stops on the Big East travel trail is in Tampa's Cuban section, known as Ybor City. The Columbia restaurant has an outstanding menu of traditional Cuban dishes (try the Ropa Vieja) and homemade sangria wine. We took some of that "to go"… additionally, we had a nice conversation with an 82-year-old gentleman (so he said) in one of the many cigar shops nearby, where they still hand roll their cigars with freshly-cured tobacco. He comes into the shop at the Columbia four days per week, as he has been doing for more than 50 years, to create some very smooth smokes. How do we know they're smooth? We bought one of those, too. As the saying goes, "when in Rome…"

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