Is it over for 'Nova?

So how does one try to explain what happened to Villanova in the second half if its shocking and embarrasing 70-69 loss to South Florida in the opening round of the Big East tournament, when it blew a 16-point halftime lead?

After leaving Madison Square Garden, walking back to my hotel, eating a hot dog bought from the cart on 40th St., and running a number of theories and ideas through my head, I'm still at a loss. I just refer back to Jack Buck's famous call of the World Series home run by a hobbled Kirk Gibson: "I don't believe what I just saw."

Tuesday night's game marked Villanova's fifth straight loss, but this was markedly different from the other four defeats. all to ranked teams.

Syracuse: Poor start, fought back, stayed in the game until near the very end.

St. John's: Poor start, fought back to within one point with 4 minutes left, wilted down the stretch.

Notre Dame: A case of a terrific three-point shooting team having a terrific three-point shooting game.

Pittsburgh: Battled while short-handed but no scoring power, lost to a likely NCAA top seed on its home court, where it rarely loses.

But this is South Florida. The Bulls finished 9-22 in the regular season, won only two games away from home. In their Big East history, they've won just 23 conference games in six seasons, and nine of those came last year.

So this loss for Villanova was bad with a capital B, with players and the head coach equally responsible.

The Wildcats were completely stagnant on offense in the second half. The idea of dribbling time off the shot clock in the front court, a necessary strategy when the Cats were short-handed Saturday against Pitt, seemed unnecessary against South Florida.

Corey Stokes, back from a hamstring injury, scored 16 points in the first half -- 14 in the opening 11 minutes -- but hardly ever touched the ball in the second. Sure, the Bulls intensified their attention on defense to Stokes but there could have been a few more attempts to have him come off a screen for a catch-and-shoot.

Corey Fisher was in his element -- driving, slashing, changing direction, setting up his teammates with pretty passes -- until he committed three fouls in the final 1 minute, 59 seconds of the first half. He did not play with nearly the same aggressiveness after that.

A big development in the game came with just under five minutes left in the first half when 6-foot-11 sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou left the game with laceration to his cheek, and possibly an injury to his ribs, Yarou never returned, and South Florida capitalized on the inside in the final 20 minutes.

Antonio Pena was outnumbered against the Bulls' big men. Sophomore Maurice Sutton fouled out in 19 minutes, as did Isaiah Armwood in 29.

So now the Wildcats will wait. It is virtually assured they will get an invitation to the NCAA tournament but they could be going in as a 9 or 10 seed after being a 2 or 3 at the end of January.

But after a devastating loss such as what happened Tuesday night, the Cats may be near rock bottom with their psyche. On the 40th anniversary of Ali-Frazier I at Madison Square Garden, they had USF knocked down but couldn't knock them out.

"I don't think any of us have finished a season this way so we've got to get their heads right," Wright said. "Their heads were great coming into this. We've got to make sure we get over this and get back to work and keep getting better."

But after five straight losses -- and has anyone entered the NCAA tournament having lost five in a row? -- the task is extremely daunting.

--Joe Juliano