TAMPA — It took Stan Heath four games to get his first win last season, so it's hard for him to complain too much about any flaws in Friday's season-opening 60-46 win against SMU at the Sun Dome.
"Last year, I thought we played ugly and lost, so this time we played ugly and won. I'm much happier," Heath said. "We obviously struggled finishing around the basket, missed a lot of layups … and free throws. Tonight was a little different because our defense stepped up."
USF held the Mustangs to 27.7 percent shooting — the team's best performance under Heath — and forced 16 turnovers while committing just 10. Senior guard Jesus Verdejo led the Bulls with 18 points and hit three 3-pointers in the final eight minutes to put the game away before an announced crowd of 3,523.
"I think we're getting to the place we want to be at," said Verdejo, who had only one turnover in 38 minutes. "Even though we're not having a good night shooting the ball, we're doing other things like getting rebounds, getting fast breaks."
The Bulls won despite poor shooting from sophomore guard Dominique Jones, who hit just four of his first 15 attempts and had a 3-pointer in the final minute to finish with 13 points. Jones had a game-high six assists and three steals, prompting SMU coach Matt Doherty to say the Bulls' leading scorer played like a point guard.
"It just wasn't falling," Jones said. "I'm happy. People say I played bad, some people say I played average. It doesn't matter. I've played a lot of good games that we've lost."
The Bulls, trying to fill the void left by the graduation of center Kentrell Gransberry, got a surprisingly solid effort from their frontcourt, which pulled down 21 offensive rebounds and led 43-39 in total boards. Senior center B.J. Ajayi had 11 rebounds but went 1-for-7 from the field, and junior center Alex Rivas Sanchez had eight points off the bench in his Bulls debut.
Verdejo's biggest shots helped put the game away, with three 3-pointers in the final eight minutes — the first came as SMU trailed just 43-37 with 7:40 to play. His next 3 extended USF's lead to 53-39 with 3:46 left, at the time the Bulls' biggest lead. USF trailed 17-12 early but used a 17-2 run to take control and lead 32-23 at halftime.
USF travels for perhaps its toughest game of the nonconference schedule Wednesday at Virginia.