Bulls seek same offensive spark against Owls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Stan Heath can't put a finger on why USF's offense clicked so well in Wednesday's 65-54 victory over California for the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. But as the Bulls try to do the same in Friday night's second-round game against fifth-seeded Temple, Heath said he believes his team looked more relaxed, having finally shed the lingering burden of trying to make the NCAA Tournament.
"Since maybe somewhere around mid-January, we were playing for our lives," Heath said of the Bulls' extended stay on the NCAA bubble. "We felt like any game we lost was an elimination game. And I think in some ways it might have been my fault that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and maybe I coached that way, where just every possession was just so important. I felt like once we got in the tournament and we talked about this, like 'Hey, we're in a new season. Let's relax and play.'"
Those relaxed Bulls, now 21-13, jumped out to a 36-13 halftime lead on the Golden Bears, hitting 15 of their first 21 shots from the field while maintaining the stifling defense they're best known for. The combination of USF playing well on both end of the courts makes them that much more difficult to prepare for, according to Temple coach Fran Dunphy.
"You know what? They figured out what they needed to do to win," Dunphy said. "The thing that impresses me the most is, when you can be tough physically or tough mentally, you have a chance to be a really good team. I think ... especially this point in the year, I think South Florida is both. So that's a tough task for us."
Heath said the public perception of his team struggling on offense may be magnified because USF was especially low-scoring when the national spotlight was on USF late in the season -- scoring 48 in a loss at Syracuse, 46 in a win against Cincinnati, 44 in a loss to West Virginia. The key to USF's scoring, he says, is limiting its turnovers, as the Bulls did with only 11 against California.
"When we have 12 or less turnovers, we average 67 points a game," Heath said. "We had 11 in that game, and we scored (65) points. So when we take care of the basketball, we are a different team offensively. We give ourselves more chances. We did that last night."
USF might need more scoring to keep up with Temple, which scored at least 64 in every game this season; the Owls averaged 76.0 points per game, more than any team in the Big East. At the same time, USF's players said the best inspiration for the offense clicking is the confidence that comes with their defensive identity controlling the game the way they want to.
"I think we like to play defense a lot more than we like to play offense at times, because we know that getting stops is what's going to keep us being successful," junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "When we see other teams frustrated and our plan unfolding out on the court, we definitely feed off that and it gives us a lot of confidence on the offensive end as well."