TAMPA — Life on the NCAA bubble is an exciting time, and USF didn't disappoint Sunday afternoon, rallying twice in the final 30 seconds to pull off a 46-45 thriller against Cincinnati and pick up a huge boost for its tournament resume before a season-high announced crowd of 6,784 at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Senior forward Ron Anderson — a 48 percent free-throw shooter — hit two for a one-point lead with 26 seconds left, and after Cincinnati got the lead back on Cashmere Wright's shot with nine seconds left, freshman point guard Anthony Collins drove the length of the court, drew a foul and hit two free throws with 3.2 seconds remaining for the win.
"I'm really proud of those guys, the way we handled adversity, persevered and found a way to come back," said coach Stan Heath, whose team improved to 14-1 in home games.
"Anthony Collins, he's just playing incredible. I don't know how to explain it. He's a freshman. He doesn't play like a freshman, he doesn't act like a freshman. But he sure makes things happen on the court for us."
The Bulls (18-11, 11-5 Big East) are fifth in the league, having already clinched a first-round bye for the conference tournament in 10 days. If they win Wednesday at No. 17 Louisville or Saturday at home against West Virginia in the regular-season finale, they will have a stronger case to make the NCAA cut for the first time in 20 years.
USF won with defense, holding Cincinnati (20-9, 10-6) to eight points below its season low and 24 below its season average. In the past six games, the Bulls have held all their opponents to 56 points or fewer and at least 20 below their average. The Big East's most prolific 3-point shooting team went 3-for-15 beyond the arc, though Bearcats coach Mick Cronin didn't give the Bulls all the credit for that.
"It's Sunday morning in a hockey arena," Cronin said. "I didn't think we were going to make shots."
USF led most of the way, but after leading 37-31 in the second half, the Bulls went scoreless for more than six minutes, and Cincinnati led 41-37 with four minutes to play. A layup by Hugh Robertson cut the lead to two, and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick's 3-pointer from the wing ignited the crowd in giving the Bulls a 42-41 lead with 2:23 left.
Wright, who had been held to three points, hit a fade for a 43-42 lead with 1:03 left, but the Bulls' Anderson drew a foul as the shot clock was running down with 26 seconds left.
For USF to win at the line was unlikely: It had gone 1-for-4 on free throws for the game before the final 30 seconds. Anderson's front end of the one-and-one hit the back of the rim and bounced straight up and in.
"That was the craziest bounce of my career," Anderson said. "There are some things that happen in a game that you can't explain. It furthermore shows me and my team that there's a bigger purpose in what we're doing out there. We're trying to make the tournament this year, and I feel like everything's falling into place."
After Wright gave Cincinnati the lead with 9.5 seconds left, Heath didn't call a timeout, correctly trusting in his freshman to make a play. Collins drew a foul and hit the winning free throws.
"Usually, Coach just says, 'Try to make a play,' " said Collins, who had game highs with 14 points and five assists. "I was just trying to drive, get in the lane, and if I saw an opening, shoot it."