USF Men’s Basketball Goes 2-1 in Inaugural Hilltop Challenge Tournament

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by Rushil Sawhney

USF men’s basketball kicked off its season with the inaugural Hilltop
Challenge featuring the Bison of North Dakota State University, the
Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona University and the University of
Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns. The Challenge is a round robin style
tournament, with each team getting a shot at one another. The team
with the most wins shall be declared the winner at the end of the tournament. The Dons have to be favored coming in to the weekend festivities, having gone an impressive 13-4 at home on the Hilltop last year. USF tipped off its season Friday night against North Dakota State at 6pm then faced the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks on Saturday at 6pm. The final game took place at 3:30 on Sunday afternoon against the Ragin Cajuns.

USF vs North Dakota State

In sports, there are two ways to lose: you either lose to a better
team or you play to the level of your opponent and lose to an inferior team. The opening act for USF Men’s hoops was a great example of how to discharge a firearm into ones foot. The Dons returned the majority of their core players, including junior forward Perris Blackwell (career high 23
pts), Senior Angelo Caloiaro (13 pts), and sophomore Cody Doolin (10
pts). Yet the veteran Dons were outpaced by a very young North Dakota
State, losing by a final tally of 73-65.
The game started off well enough, with Caloiaro dropping the first
bucket of the game for the Dons. Things were back and forth for the
majority of the first half, with red shirt sophomore Dominique O’Connor
driving the lane with success for USF. North Dakota, however, was
having trouble in the paint, due largely to the presence of the 240
pound Blackwell who was aided by Caloiaro and sophomore Cole
Dickerson. The Bison decided to let red shirt sophomore Taylor Braun
(career high 26 pts) and rookie Lawrence Alexander (13 pts) shoot over
the top of the Dons. It worked. The Bison shot at a .500 clip from the
field, with Braun and Alexander leading the way. In response, the Dons
started to force the rock on offense, leading to numerous USF
turnovers, thus allowing North Dakota to score easy buckets. With just under 5 minutes left in the first half, ND State was
up 29-24, in the bonus for USF fouls, and pulling away.
The Bison ended the first half on a 6-0 run and the Dons were left
trailing 35-24. During the first 20 minutes of play, USF had trouble
finding cohesion on offense and keeping the ball secure. Coupled with
the fact that the Bison defense had effectively nullified both Rashad Green
and Michael Williams (combined 11 pts), the Dons were without either
of their big scoring threats and were desperately searching for answers.
The whistle blew to resume play and Blackwell decided he was going to put the team on his immense shoulders and carry the Dons with 19
second half points. The Dons continued to commit turnovers on offense
(USF tallied 21 total cough-ups), but they started to out hustle ND
State on defense. Caloiaro, Doolin and Blackwell were, more times than
not, sprawled out on the hardwood fighting for the ball, in an effort
to gain possession and cut the Bison lead. And that they did;
bolstered by clutch three point shooting from Doolin and Caloiaro, the Dons finally pulled ahead in the contest with 6:40 to play.
The game remained close until Blackwell drew his 4th personal foul. Fearing that he would lose Blackwell for the remaining 5 minutes, Coach Rex Walters pulled his junior forward. ND State responded by rattling off another 6-0 run, which was stopped only when Blackwell returned to the court, where he would remain with ejection looming only one foul away.
With just over 60 seconds left, USF called a timeout to prepare for
their final attack. ND State in-bounded the ball and on cue, War
Memorial Gym got loud, trying to rattle the Bison. Sadly, when a team is
trailing late in a basketball game, they must foul and hope the opponent
misses their free throws. The Dons lived up to their end of the
bargain, committing five fouls in the last 60 ticks. ND State,
however, did not, going 6-8 from the stripe, making USF’s final 7
points too little too late . Cody Doolin dropped his seventh and eighth points of the game as time expired.
In the following games of the Hilltop Challenge the Dons will have to find ways to free up Green and Williams while slowing down on offense to commit fewer turnovers. If they continue to force passes on offense, the Dons may find themselves 0-3 on Monday morning.

USF vs Northern Arizona University

What a difference 24 hours can make in the game of basketball. The
USF Dons ended Friday night with a loss to a team they should have
beat, due largely to bad ball movement and sloppy offense. That all
changed Saturday evening as Perris Blackwell won the tip-off against
Northern Arizona University, and Michael Williams lead the home team
to victory with a game high 16 points. The Dons routed the Lumberjacks 69-50.
The last time USF took the floor, they hurried themselves on offense,
thus limiting any chances they had at building momentum. From the
first whistle, USF started to slow the ball down on offense, allowing
plays to build and opportunities to present themselves. In the first play of the game, Cody Doolin (6 points) got the ball low to big man, Perris Blackwell, the largest man on the court. Ball secure, Blackwell went up strong, got fouled, and went to the line. From then on, it seemed all NAU could do to stop USF post game, was foul, and that they did very well. USF drew 10 fouls in the first half but did not convert as they should from the stripe, making 5 of 12 free throws.
Getting the Lumberjacks into foul trouble, however, did free up
Williams and Green (10 points) when they drove the lane as weary NAU
defenders let them pass, afraid of drawing more fouls. Both of them showed impressive athleticism when driving the lane, with Williams making some contortionist like lay-ups.
The first half ended with USF up by a score of 28-26. The Dons were
starting to fire on most cylinders; although there were still forced shots,
miscues that lead to easy NAU layups, and a few dumb fouls. Coach Rex
Walters must have gotten his team fired up during the recess though, because the Dons came out, swords drawn, ready to cut down the Jacks.
Angelo Caloiaro (7 points, 11 rebounds) started things off for USF
with a long 3, but there was a bit of concern when Blackwell picked up
his 3rd foul only 90 seconds into the second half. Enter sophomore
forward Cole Dickerson, who picked up where Blackwell left off,
dropping 12 points, collecting six rebounds and deflecting two shots.
In response to the upstart Dons, NAU started to foul, a lot. The
Lumberjacks committed a staggering 18 penalties in the final 20
minutes of play, which lead to 18 converted free throws by USF. Those
free points ensured that the NAU Bounty-men had no chance of building
enough momentum (or points) to topple the Dons. As USF started to
loosen up on offense, they also stiffened on defense. NAU was held to
just 24 points in the second half, or 1.2 points a minute, whereas USF
drained buckets at twice that rate, outscoring NAU 41-24 in the final
half. USF built up such an insurmountable lead that Coach Walters put
in some of his younger players, including sophomore Justin Raffington,
who made a nice move, netted a foul, and converted the 3 point play at
the line.
War Memorial Gym also started to regain some of its passion and
swagger. At the start of the second half, James Douglas missed a long
3 for NAU. After that, every time Douglas touched the ball, chants of
“AIRBALL, AIRBALL” started up. While comical, these chants may have
had an affect on the Lumberjack guard, because he scored only two points
in the second half.
The final horn sounded as Luis Flores missed a meaningless
three-pointer for NAU, and USF had righted the ship. They showed that
they could identify mistakes in their game and, more importantly, fix
those mistakes. USF managed to slow down their game offensively, hustled for damn near every loose ball and contested every shot offered up by the Jacks. Whether they knocked off the rust, cleared the cobwebs or
swept up the dust, the USF Dons are starting to get better and improve
their game. Now the 1-1 Dons will have to rest fast, as tip-off against the Ragin Cajuns was slated for 3:30 on Sunday afternoon.

USF vs University of Louisiana Lafayette

Sunday afternoon found the Dons lining up for the final game of the
Hilltop Challenge against the University of Luisiana- Lafayette Ragin’
Cajuns. Both teams came into the game at 1-1, with both teams having
lost to North Dakota State earlier in the weekend. In what was the most entertaining and hard-fought game of the tournament, USF won a close game that saw 12 lead changes, 11 of which came in the last 15 minutes.
The first half started off well enough, with USF winning the tip and
Angelo Caloiaro (18 points, 10 rebs) going hard to the rim, getting
fouled and hitting the free throws to give the Dons an early lead. The
Dons hit a Cajun nerve, because after two successful trips down the
court (and a 5-0 lead), UL-L coach Bob Marlin called a timeout just 73
seconds into the contest. Whatever Marlin said must have worked,
because the Cajuns started to grab lots of rebounds on offense, giving
them the chance to take the lead. Good things chances are just that,
because USF continued to play good defense, forcing bad second chance
shots from UL-L.
USF, however, was having trouble getting production
in the post, due to UL-L’s size in the low block. The Dons started to
settle for outside shots, hitting them at a dead even 50%. The Dons
were able to hold their early lead into halftime, with a lot of help
coming from the Cajun defenders. USF was in the bonus with over 10
minutes left in the half and converted 6 of 7 free throws. Cody Doolin (15 points, 6 rebs) ended the half with and impressive 3 pointer followed by a quick break away lay-up that put the Dons up by ten.
After 20 minutes of play, the Dons went into the locker room with a 5
point lead over the Ragin Cajuns at a tally of 36-31. The Dons looked
more poised than UL-L in the first half, waiting for UL-L to make a
mistake on defense and then capitalizing on it. For the first time this
season, however, the Dons did not have the advantage in the low post.
Coach Walters responded by playing the smaller, more versatile
Dickerson (9 points, 4 rebs) in lieu of Blackwell. Nevertheless,
Blackwell managed to drain 8 points in 28 minutes of play.
In the second half, USF started with the ball but struggled to score,
allowing UL-L to start the half on a 12-4 run after 5 minutes. Michael
Williams started to thaw out for the Dons, scoring 9 of his 11 points
in the final half. UL-L maintained their dominance in the lane, but
USF utilized their smaller guards to drive the lane and draw fouls,
forcing the Cajuns to commit 11 second half fouls. The Dons
capitalized, sinking 17 of 26 free throws, having been in the bonus
for over seven minutes. Nevertheless, with 43 seconds left, UL-L had a
one point lead and it looked like the contest was going to come down
to a last second shot. With 27 seconds on the clock, Coach Walters called a timeout, and the fans at War Memorial were treated to the sight of
Cody Doolin knifing through the lane, dropping the bucket for two.
Down by one, UL-L held the ball for the last shot and Darshawn
McClellan (8 points) air-balled a long two. But the ball tipped off a
USF defender, allowing the Ragin Cajuns one last chance with 8.1 left
on the clock. USF defended the in-bound pass well and played tight
defense, forcing a bad shot from Kadeem Coleby (4 points) and time
expired as the ball hit the floor. USF won the game by a final score
of 71-70. USF proved that they could adapt to an opponents game plan while also showing the incredible depth of their bench (17 crucial points).

North Dakota State would go on to be the champions of the Hilltop Challenge going undefeated against all three opponenets. Taylor Braun, NDSU’s sophomore guard was named the MVP of the tournament averaging 16.7 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game for the weekend.

The Dons, now 2-1, will host San Jose State on November 16th at War Memorial Gymnasium. Tip off is set for 8pm.

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