(Since USF is not in this year's post-season, and is one of the few major-conference schools to have never won an NCAA game, we'd like to revisit what is probably USF basketball's greatest post-season victory. And work in another musical reference.)
March 1995 was an optimistic time for sports fans in Tampa Bay.
The sale of the Buccaneers to Malcolm Glazer was consummated, saving the team from relocation. The expansion Lightning escaped last place and set attendance records at the ThunderDome. Locals rejoiced that Major League Baseball was finally coming to town, despite the strike that killed the previous season. USF had gained admission into the newly-created Conference USA, a step up for its athletic program. And the longest of long shots -- football at USF -- looked like it might actually happen.
But the South Florida Bulls had reasons to be happy right now: they had squeaked into the post-season NIT, after finishing sixth in a seven-team Metro Conference, and losing the first round conference tournament game to Tulane.
And this wasn't just any NIT game. It was a home game, for starters. And it was a home game against the the next Jordan, the can't-miss future NBA lottery pick, the chosen one when LeBron James was in sixth grade, the high schooler who had already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated: Felipe Lopez of the St. John's Red Storm.
Both teams were eager to prove themselves in the NIT. St. John's was coming off its first losing season since 1962-63, and young coach Brian Mahoney wanted to show he had what it took to succeed legendary coach and sweater aficionado Lou Carnesecca. The Red Storm had responded to the down year with a terrific recruiting class, starring Lopez, who went for 18 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as a freshman in the merciless Big East. As for USF, they had their own star in Chucky Atkins, and wanted to show that their program was closer to its 1992 NCAA at-large bid than the two losing seasons that followed it. (Remember, this was fifteen years ago, and Ole Miss/Clemson Syndrome had not yet been identified.)
But the Bulls would not be bullied by the big, bad Big East.
It was a tight game from the opening tip, with neither team gaining much of an advantage for most of the first half. With St. John's up 25-23 late in the first half, the real star of this game would emerge. Not Lopez or Atkins, but USF freshman reserve guard Brian Lamb, a name that later grew very familiar to followers of USF men's basketball and USF university governance.
Lamb, who had played 9 minutes per game and averaged 2 points that season, scored USF's next eleven points, single-handedly ripping off an 11-3 run that gave USF a 34-28 lead. At the half, USF's lead would be 36-35.
The second half played much like the first, a close-knit game with neither team able to gain ground. USF never built its lead beyond six, but St. John's missed several opportunities to take the lead, either missing shots or committing turnovers.
Consecutive three-pointers by Atkins and Lamb finally broke the six-point barrier, putting USF up 66-59 with 2:24 to play. The Bulls hit 6-of-8 from the free throw line down the stretch, sealing the 74-67 victory, to the delight of the noisy crowd.
The headline the next day: "Lamb Turns Lion."
And what of Felipe Lopez? Lopez, guarded by Lamb most of the game, was a non-factor, going only 2-for-7 from the field.
At St. John's, the loss was viewed as an unacceptable end to an underachieving season. Instead of returning to the happy side of .500, St. John's ended the season at 14-14, which some newspaper wag pointed out were its first back-to-back non-winning seasons since 1920.
The SJU camp couldn't decide what to blame. "We weren't focused," said their leading scorer James Scott. Lopez blamed himself, saying he wasn't initiating on offense. Mahoney credited USF's defense against Lopez, and admitted he wasn't prepared for Lamb's brilliant two-way performance. The New York media cited that team's propensity for untimely errors, such as a late turnover by Tarik Turner when St. John's could have tied the game. Even Death Row, USF's legendary but obnoxious student section of the day, took credit for getting under Lopez's skin.
Lamb was gracious in victory, saying "He's a great player, no question about it. But we went in with the attitude of be it Felipe or Michael Jordan, no matter who we played, we wanted to win and get on the road to Madison Square Garden."
Which they were one step closer to achieving. USF had won a postseason game, for only the third time in its 23-year history, and would face either MEAC power Coppin State or Atlantic 10 also-ran St. Joseph's in the second round.
To be continued...