NASHVILLE — Stan Heath can't put a finger on why USF's offense clicked so well in Wednesday's 65-54 victory over California, the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
But as the Bulls seek their second in tonight's second-round game against Temple, the coach said he believes his team looked more relaxed, having shed the burden of trying to make the tournament.
"Since around mid January, we were playing for our lives," said Heath, whose team entered averaging 59.2 points. "We felt like any game we lost was an elimination game. And I think in some ways, it might have been my fault that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. And maybe I coached that way, where just every possession was just so important.
"I felt like once we got in the tournament — and we talked about this — it was like, 'Hey, we're in a new season. Let's relax and play.' "
Those relaxed Bulls (21-13), jumped out to a 36-13 halftime lead on the Golden Bears, hitting 15 of their first 21 shots while maintaining the stifling defense they exhibited throughout the season.
USF playing well at both end of the court makes it that much more difficult to prepare for, according to Temple coach Fran Dunphy.
"They figured out what they needed to do to win," said Dunphy, whose team has beaten Duke (a No. 2 seed in the tournament) and Wichita State (No. 5) this season. "The thing that impresses me the most is when you can be tough physically or tough mentally, you have a chance to be a really good team. I think … especially at this point in the year, South Florida is both. So that's a tough task for us."
Heath said the public perception of his team struggling on offense might be magnified because it was especially low scoring when the national spotlight was on it late in the season — scoring 48 in a loss at Syracuse, 46 in a win against Cincinnati, 58 in a win against Louisville, 44 in a loss to West Virginia and 56 and 53 in its Big East tournament games.
The key to USF's scoring, Heath said, is limiting turnovers. Against Cal, the Bulls did with 11.
"When we have 12 or less turnovers, we average 67 points a game," Heath said. "We had 11 in that game, and we scored (65) points. So when we take care of the basketball, we are a different team offensively. We give ourselves more chances."
USF might need more scoring to keep up with Temple, which has scored at least 64 in every game. The Owls averaged 76, more than any team in the Big East.
At the same time, USF's players said the best inspiration for the offense clicking is the confidence that comes with their defensive identity controlling the game.
"I think we like to play defense a lot more than we like to play offense at times because we know that getting stops is what's going to keep us being successful," junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said.
"When we see other teams frustrated and our plan unfolding out on the court, we definitely feed off that and it gives us a lot of confidence on the offensive end as well."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]m and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.