TAMPA—For the first time this season, the Bulls were all healthy. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
Jawanza Poland led the team with 13 points in his season debut as USF downed Cleveland State 70-55 on Monday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"We have Jawanza back, we're at full strength, and it feels good to have a full group of guys," forward Ron Anderson Jr. said. "We have a lot of different guys out there and can use a couple different looks."
Coach Stan Heath did just that on defense, switching from man-to-man to a zone in order to take the Vikings (10-2) out of their rhythm and keep them in front of the Bulls' defenders. As a result, Cleveland State shot 26.9 from 3-point range, hampering the Vikings' ability to come back from a 25-21 halftime deficit.
The Bulls held the Vikings scoreless for nine minutes in the opening half as Hugh Robertson capped a 10-0 run with a steal and a two-handed dunk.
The acrobatics continued after the break in what Heath called his team's best half this season. Poland, who missed games due to a lingering back injury and two-game NCAA suspension, scored all of his points in the half. After hitting two free throws for his first points, Poland sank an open 3-pointer on the Bulls' next possession.
"He's one of those guys that's a rhythm guy," Heath said. "Once Jawanza gets going, he's like that heater in the basement — he gets hot and starts throwing steam out."
The warm weather wasn't kind to the Vikings, a team that beat USF in Cleveland last year and knocked off then-No. 7 Vanderbilt to open this season. After Cleveland State started the second half on a 6-0 run, Poland's one-handed dunk past a fallen defender in the paint pushed the Bulls' lead to 10 and forced the Vikings to call timeout.
"I caught it off a reverse," Poland said. "I had hit a couple of shots off the pump fake, and I saw the lane open."
Augustus Gilchrist, who entered 15 points shy of 1,000 for his career, added 10 of his 12 in the second half. And after 24 turnovers doomed USF against the Vikings last year, the Bulls committed 12 while forcing 14.
The challenge for USF will be to replicate the second-half success on the road, as the Bulls travel to Southern Miss on Thursday. The strong performance in front of an announced crowd of 2,942 — there were more like 942 actually in the stands — can only help.
"Our confidence was a little shaken, to be honest with you," Heath said. "This was a huge confidence booster for this team understanding, hey, we can do it."