Jones, Bulls knock off Cincinnati, 70-59
TAMPA -- USF hadn't won in nearly a month, and freshman guard Justin Leemow hadn't hit a shot from the field in even longer, going 0-for-23 over an eight-game stretch.
But Tuesday was a good night for streaks to end. Leemow broke out of his slump with three 3-pointers in the second half, and with Dominique Jones scored 30 points to lead USF to a 70-59 upset of Cincinnati in the Sun Dome.
"It gives us a lot of confidence, a momentum builder, and I think we need that," said Jones, who had 18 in the second half. "We started at the bottom, and I think we're moving our way up. This is a step to making history. It's our fourth win, and Saturday, we're going for five."
The win is USF's fourth in Big East play, setting a new high in the Bulls' four seasons in the conference. USF (9-20, 4-13) won one game in 2005-06 and had just three games in the last two seasons. Cincinnati (18-12, 8-9) came in as a team on the NCAA bubble, but the Bulls got to play spoiler against their old conference rivals, having won just five of 25 previous meetings.
"Making progress is what it's about," coach Stan Heath said. "Getting better, trying to get to another level. You never want to take a step backward. I do think, considering what we've gone through this year, it shows a lot. ... We've gotten more wins in, I think, a lot harder conference than it was last year."
With just one healthy senior on Senior Night -- forward Aris Williams had two points -- a young Bulls team won with stifling defense in the final nine minutes. Down 50-46 with 8:40 to play, USF held the Bearcats to one field goal in their next 11 attempts, taking control with a 17-2 run. The rally was sparked by Leemow's third 3-pointer -- he matched a career high with nine points -- and Jones followed with a 3 to put USF ahead 52-50.
This was a night for underclassmen -- in addition to the sophomore Jones, freshman Gus Gilchrist had 13 points, junior Alex Rivas Sanchez had 10, and junior Chris Howard had 10 assists -- after 11 in Saturday's loss to West Virginia -- and zero turnovers in 40 minutes.
Leemow said the underclassmen were motivated to get a win to send out three seniors, including guard Jesus Verdejo, out with a foot injury, and center B.J. Ajayi, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.
"That meant a lot to me -- 'Zeus seemed like he was on the court, telling me to keep my head up," Leemow said. "He was real excited after the game."
Heath had seen Cincinnati struggle against Syracuse's zone defense in an 87-63 loss Sunday and used more zone than he has all season. The Bearcats tried to shoot their way over it, attempting 32 3-pointers, but hit just seven of them, shooting 22 percent beyond the arc.
"We had some guys take some ill-advised shots, had some guys turn the ball over, and we ended up taking way too many 3-point shots, trying to match them because they made a few," Bearcats coach Mike Cronin said. "That's a recipe for an upset."
The Bulls have clinched the 14th seed in next week's Big East tournament and will play at 9 p.m. Tuesday. Having beaten a team with eight conference wins, the Bulls now have confidence heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at Rutgers, which entered Tuesday's game with Syracuse 1-15 in league play.
USF held a moment of silence before the game in tribute to former USF football player Nick Schuyler, rescued Monday after two days lost at sea, and for former USF tight end Will Bleakley and former Bucs players Corey Smith and Marquise Cooper, who went out fishing with Schuyler and remain missing. The Coast Guard ended its active search for the remaining boaters Tuesday evening.