Bulls hold on to upset Syracuse, 89-78
TAMPA -- At last, the Bulls didn't let one slip away.
Building early leads and staying close in so many games only to see Big East opponents pull away late, USF found a lead it could hold onto -- if barely -- Wednesday night. The Bulls got clutch free throws late from freshman guard Dominique Jones, pulling out a much-needed 89-78 win against Syracuse before 6,705 fans in the Sun Dome.
"It’s been a while," said coach Stan Heath, whose team hadn’t won in six weeks, dropping 10 straight. "I’m really happy for our players. It’s good to see them in the locker room smiling, good to see them enjoying a victory. We just challenged our team to play for 40 minutes."
The Bulls (11-14, 2-10) ended the streak against the team that started it, getting 23 points and nine rebounds from center Kentrell Gransberry. Jones finished with a game-high 29 points, going a perfect 10-for-10 on free throws in the final 1:24. Syracuse cut a 20-point second-half lead to just three, but the Orange rally ended at USF's free-throw line.
"They just put the game in my hands, said, ‘Hey, go up there and make free throws and we win," Jones said. "That’s easy."
Syracuse (16-9, 6-6) made it look a lot harder. Down 12 with three minutes to play, the Orange made a furious run, scoring eight straight to get within 77-73 with 1:25 to play. Jones hit two free throws, then Syracuse got a 3-pointer from Kristof Ongenaet to cut the lead to three with 1:09 left. A close call on a loose ball went USF’s way, and Jones closed out the game at the line.
Heath said there were "a lot of heroes" Wednesday, from guard Jesus Verdejo scoring 19 points to point guard Chris Howard dishing nine assists. Solomon Bozeman had 10 off the bench, going 5-for-6 at the line.
"We hit shots. That’s the main thing that’s been bothering us all year," said Jones, who had 17 in the first half as USF built a 36-17 lead. "We’ve been missing open shots. When we hit shots, good things happen."
The Bulls shot 57.1 percent from the field, after shooting no better than 44.9 in their first 11 league games. They went 7-for-15 on 3-pointers, their best showing since beating Rutgers in the conference opener, and matched a season high by hitting 81.3 percent of their free throws. Even Gransberry, a 54 percent shooter at the line coming in, hit 7 of his first 8 attempts.
Syracuse, which got 17 points from forward Donte Greene, had beaten the Bulls 89-77 in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 5, but Orange coach Jim Boeheim said he didn’t think USF had improved that much since the first meeting.
"I don’t see that. I see us playing about 190 percent worse," Boeheim said. "It was a nightmare defensive game for us. South Florida has been in games, against Georgetown, against DePaul. Whether they lost 10 straight games or not, they’re not a bad team."
The Bulls stay at home, facing No. 17 Connecticut on Saturday. Heath hopes the win can give the Bulls momentum, but they would likely need to win at least four of their remaining six games to make the Big East tournament.