TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—South Florida coach Robert McCullum hesitated a moment, then tried to describe a dominating performance by McHugh Mattis.
“My vocabulary won’t allow me to expound,” McCullum said after the slender 6-foot-6 forward, who hardly has the physique to dominate Big East opponents inside, scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to pace a 69-63 victory over No. 21 Notre Dame on Saturday night.
“I don’t know what to say,” McCullum continued. “Is there a better player in the league, pound for pound? I wish he weighed what he’s listed in the program. … He just makes incredible plays.”
Mattis matched his career-high in scoring, and his rebound total also was a personal best. Melvin Buckley added 11 points for the Bulls (12-11, 3-6), who squandered a double-digit lead before pulling away for good in the last five minutes.
The win was USF’s fourth in 25 conference games since entering the Big East last season.
“For where our program is,” McCullum said, “this is huge.”
Colin Falls led Notre Dame (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points. Russell Carter finished with 14 and Luke Harangody had 10 for the Irish, who shot 37.5 percent less than two weeks after routing the Bulls 82-58 in South Bend.
USF finished a three-game homestand with the two victories that coach Robert McCullum felt were crucial to his team having a realistic chance to make a run at a berth in the Big East postseason tournament.
The Bulls beat Rutgers for just their third conference win in two seasons and narrowly missed pulling off an upset against Marquette, committing a turnover in the closing seconds and losing 70-68 on a layup at the buzzer last Sunday.
“This does a lot for our team,” said South Florida’s Kentrell Gransberry, who had 14 rebounds. “Coach always says you can tell a lot about a team after they bounce back from a hard loss. That’s just what we did.”
Notre Dame, the league’s top scoring team at more than 83 per game, continued to struggle on the road, where they’ve dropped four of five conference games.
The Irish were coming off a 103-91 victory at Syracuse, but were 9-for-28 on 3-point attempts and held to just four field goals overall in the final five minutes.
Down 10 early in the second half, Notre Dame used a 19-7 run to roar back. Falls finished the spurt with three straight 3-pointers, the last one putting the Irish ahead 49-46 with just under eight minutes remaining.
That turned out to be the Irish’s biggest lead of the night.
Mattis put USF ahead for good with a layup with 5:04 left. His putback made it 59-53 and another rebound and layup by the 6-foot-6 senior hiked the advantage to 61-53. From there, the Bulls put the game away from the foul line.
“Mattis, on the backboard, really hurt us. He was fabulous,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Every missed shot at a key time for them he seemed to clean up and put back in.”
With second-leading scorer Rob Kurz still bothered by a foot injury that kept him out of the Syracuse game, Notre Dame couldn’t muster much offense down the stretch.
Besides shooting poorly from the field, the Irish missed six of eight free throws in the last nine minutes. Kurz was scoreless in 19 minutes after leading the Irish with 21 points and 10 rebounds in the win over USF at South Bend.
“South Florida played great,” Brey said. “They had the thing won (against Marquette) and couldn’t get it. But their kids bounced back and really defended us.”