TAMPA – USF won the Big East because of its ability to heat up on the back nine and a similar performance from the Bulls on Friday has them on the verge of extending their postseason run.
USF jumped up to a tie for fifth place after combining to go 13 under on the back nine in the second round of the Tallahassee Regional. The top five finishers from each region advance to the NCAA championship rounds that take place May 28 through June 2 at The Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course in Atlanta.
“They did great job today in a clutch situation and gave themselves a chance going into the final round tomorrow,” head coach Chris Malloy said.
USF and No. 7 Georgia Tech are 12 under overall and two shots away from No. 43 Oregon in fourth place. No. 19 North Florida leads the field at 27 under, followed by No. 6 Washington (-25) and No. 12 Florida State (-23).
“We got off to a terrible start and with this team’s heart, it battled back. To go 13 under on the back nine, that’s crazy,” Malloy said. “We’ve talked all year about handling adversity a little bit better. We didn’t do a very good job of that in the fall and these guys have worked hard on that.”
Richard James’ game really started to take off when he shot a 68 in the Big East tournament finale and the junior hasn’t slowed down a bit since. James started the NCAA tournament with a 68 and carded a 5-under 67 in the second round to jump up to a tie for fourth at 9 under, two shots off the lead.
“That’s why we brought Richard in here. We knew he was capable of rounds like this – big rounds in big situations. I don’t expect anything different from him tomorrow,” Malloy said.
James led the Bulls’ late charge with six birdies on the back nine after he started 1 over on the front half of the course.
“He always has a low round in him and proved that today,” Malloy said. “He didn’t have a whole lot going in the beginning part of his round and really grinded it out and took advantage of the last five or six holes.”
Big East Player and Freshman of the Year Chase Koepka also started with a 68 on Thursday and grinded out a 71 on Friday to get to 5 under overall, six shots off the lead. Sophomore Trey Valentine opened with a 69 and continued with a 71 to get to 4 under.
“They both just battled all day long. They certainly did not have their best stuff out there today, but a sign of a good player is getting it done when things around going your way,” Malloy said. “They did a great job today and kept us in this thing.”
Devin Hernandez finished the Big East tournament with a 69 and helped the Bulls regroup on Friday by going 3 under on the back nine. The senior’s strong finish got him down to 75 for the round.
Gaining momentum down the stretch has given the Bulls a chance to advance in the tournament and Malloy feels good about USF’s ability to keep a good thing going in the final round.
“The team that is confident, calm and is loose out there, that’s going to be the team that advances to the finals,” he said. “If they do all those things tomorrow, they’ll be just fine. They’re as talented as anybody else teeing it up in this field. They just have to believe in themselves and enjoy the day tomorrow, and we’ll be OK.”