Close again: Bulls fall to No. 9 UConn, 60-57
TAMPA -- USF has given Connecticut all kinds of scares in recent years, taking the defending national champs to overtime last season and before that in 2008.
But again Wednesday night, the Bulls had to settle for a near-miss, giving the No. 9 Huskies a battle for 35 minutes but ultimately falling 60-57 in their Big East opener before an announced crowd of 5,705 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"If our team plays like this, we'll win a lot of games," coach Stan Heath said. "We're not into moral victories, but we're into getting better, and I'm seeing the progress, seeing us improve. It's coming. That kind of effort can win. There's probably 10 teams on the schedule I'm sure that we can beat playing at that level. The kids continue to get better."
USF (7-7) hung around late -- the Bulls were down one with the ball and less than five minutes left, but freshman point guard Anthony Collins lost the ball with only seconds on the shot clock, resulting in a violation. UConn (11-1) answered with an alley-oop on the other end, then on the next possession a runner by Jeremy Lamb -- who had a game-high 23 points -- for a five-point lead with 3:56 remaining. USF wouldn't get any closer until Victor Rudd hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"We can't be satisfied with just coming close," Fitzpatrick said. "We showed up today to win a ballgame, and we can't be satisfied by saying, 'Oh, we lost by 3 to the defending champs.'"
USF's offense faltered down the stretch, as the Bulls went 5:51 without hitting a field goal as UConn went on an 8-2 run to pull away. Collins, going up against UConn's Shabazz Napier, had six assists, five steals and zero turnovers in 38 minutes in his Big East debut. Junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick had a strong game with 14 points and 12 rebounds, with senior Augustus Gilchrist added 12 points. Lamb came up with clutch shots for the Huskies in the second half, including two baskets early in a 7-0 run after USF had retaken the lead.
"They were terrific. I thought Stan's kids really played hard," said Huskies coach George Blaney, filling in as Jim Calhoun served an NCAA-mandated three-game suspension. "We told them right after the game that any win in the Big East on the road is a great win."
The Bulls actually led before the opening tip -- UConn was assessed a technical foul for not submitting its starting lineup to the official scorer in time, and Shaun Noriega hit one of two free throws before the tip. A 3-pointer by Noriega, then two from Fitzpatrick, helped the Bulls to a 12-4 lead, and UConn didn't get its first lead until there was eight seconds left in the half and Roscoe Smith hit a pair of free throws for a 30-28 advantage at the half.
USF has played UConn close in recent years, losing in overtime in Hartford last season and in Tampa in 2008, and falling by seven in Tampa in 2010. And well into the second half, that looked to be the case again, with USF leading 34-32 five minutes in, buoyed by strong defense and aggressive rebounding. The Bulls went 5-for-10 on 3-pointers against the Big East's toughest field-goal defense, and held UConn -- the league's top 3-point shooting team -- to just one 3-pointer on two attempts before halftime.
The downtown crowd -- USF's Sun Dome is undergoing $35 million in renovations this season -- was the lowest UConn has played to in nearly two years. The last time UConn came to Tampa, the Bulls and Huskies drew an announced 8,311 in the Sun Dome.
USF stays home for its second Big East game, playing host to Rutgers -- who the Bulls have beaten in three of the last five meetings -- on Sunday at noon at the newly rechristened Tampa Bay Times Forum.