BIG EAST Stage Is Set

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Get ready. Game time is less than 22 hours away.

After posting a 56-47 win over Villanova in the final second round BIG EAST game on Wednesday night, South Florida earned a quarterfinal berth and rematch with third-seeded Notre Dame. Anthony Collins scored 17 and Victor Rudd Jr. added 13 for the Bulls, who won their 20th game of the season.

The Bulls and Irish met on Jan. 10 in South Bend, a game that Notre Dame won, 60-49. As is often the case at Purcell Pavilion, the Irish used a big second half run to break the game open. With 9:17 to play, Notre Dame led 40-37, but over the next 5:07, the Irish reeled off 14 straight to build up a 17-point lead, on the way to their third victory of the young BIG EAST season.

Three Irish players scored in double figures, including Scott Martin who registered 15 points and 13 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double. Jack Cooley led all scorers with 16 points, and Jerian Grant added 14.

Forward Augustus Gilchrist led the Bulls with 13 points, while Jawanza Poland chipped in 12. Fittingly, Gilchrist and Poland finished the regular season as USF's leading scorers.

For more on that game from nearly two months ago, check out the highlights and Coach Brey's post game press conference.

Shifting attention to tomorrow night, it will be a matchup of overachievers. Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the BIG EAST this season, while USF was voted 14th. Instead, Coach Brey's Irish squad finished third in the conference (13-5) and Stan Heath's Bulls tied Cincinnati and Georgetown for fourth (12-6).

It will also be a battle of two strong defenses. Tonight's game marked the ninth straight contest in which the Bulls held their opponent under 60 points. Likewise, the Irish held opposing teams below that mark in nine of 18 conference games, including seven of those during the nine-game winning streak that began on Jan. 21 vs. top-ranked Syracuse.

On Tuesday, Heath was named the OppenheimerFunds BIG EAST Coach of the Year. The fifth-year USF head coach guided his team to a nine-game improvement over last year's 3-15 conference finish.

The tournament fun truly begins tomorrow, as the top-4 teams (Syracuse, Cincinnati, Marquette, and of course, Notre Dame) take the court for quarterfinal action. It all starts at noon as the top-seeded Orange face #9 seed Connecticut - a classic BIG EAST rivalry that has produced some memorable games over the years.

And in the evening, it will be your Fighting Irish in the spotlight - 9 pm on ESPN vs. South Florida. Check back to UND.com and Irish UNDerground tomorrow for more coverage of the Irish as they prepare for the big quarterfinal matchup in NYC.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

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