ORLANDO — USF men's basketball coach Stan Heath recognized the big role that a loud UCF crowd played Thursday night and referenced a "huge discrepancy" in fouls in the second half, but he ultimately considered the Bulls' 65-59 loss to the Knights a self-inflicted wound.
"I told the guys the enemy was within," Heath said. "It was our inability to convert when we had opportunities, whether it was the free-throw line, layups or the plays we had to get that game where we needed it to be."
The Knights (3-0) had an announced crowd of 7,653 in UCF Arena, their fourth-largest home crowd ever, and the fans were loudest after big plays by 5-foot-9 point guard A.J. Rompza, who had a personal 9-0 run early to give UCF a 32-22 lead.
The Bulls (1-2) led early in the second half but fell prey to another late-game lull after giving up the final 15 points in a loss to Southern Miss on Friday and letting St. Francis close the gap late in a Bulls' victory Sunday. Down 48-47 with 8:45 to go Thursday night, USF went scoreless for more than five minutes, mustering only four shots as UCF went on a 10-0 run.
"We have these four- and five-minute lulls in games, and against a good team, that comes back to haunt you," Heath said. "That's what happened tonight."
Down nine with two minutes left, the Bulls rallied to within two on Jawanza Poland's 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, but Rompza and Palm Harbor's A.J. Tyler each hit two free throws in the final 15 seconds to seal the win.
"At some points of the night we beat ourselves a little bit. We had a lot of turnovers," said junior forward Ron Anderson, who led USF with 18 points off the bench, along with seven rebounds. "The good thing about that is those are things we can correct. We'll get back in the gym. It's still early in the season. We'll correct the turnovers and the mental mistakes we're making as a team, come together a little more."
USF's starting frontcourt of Augustus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous, touted by Heath as the Big East's best, didn't take a free throw in the game, and while Gilchrist had his best game of the season with 14 points, Famous had just two points.
UCF went to the line 20 times in the second half, helping offset 21.7 percent shooting from the field, while USF went to the line five times after halftime.
USF had won 10 of the last 11 meetings in the series, but the Knights have now won the last two games in Orlando. Thursday's crowd included basketball legend Michael Jordan, whose sons Marcus and Jeffrey are on the Knights roster. Jeffrey is sitting out this season after transferring from Illinois, and Marcus, a guard, had 10 points and a team-high four rebounds against the Bulls.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.