TAMPA — Stan Heath doesn't want to lean on guard Dominique Jones as much as his Bulls did Saturday night. All things considered, it's not a bad strategy.
Jones had a career-high 36 points, going 7-of-9 on 3-point attempts, to carry a struggling Bulls team to a 68-55 win against Iona at the Sun Dome.
"Dominique had a phenomenal game," Heath said. "I haven't seen many games like that in my career, up close like that. He just had a hot hand, and his teammates did a great job of understanding that, getting him the ball, screening for him and riding him out."
The burden on Jones' back has somehow gotten a little bit heavier.
The Bulls open Big East play Friday at home against No. 17 Syracuse, but they'll do so without junior guard Mike Mercer, who is out for the season after tearing his right ACL. Mercer, who tore the same ligament while at Georgia in February 2007, could have a sixth year of eligibility to regain the season he just lost.
Losing Mercer, and coming off a 23-point loss Monday to an Oral Roberts team that had been 2-10, the Bulls (5-7) needed a lift before starting conference play.
"We had been reeling a little bit, so to get back on the right track, I was really happy for our guys," Heath said. "Psychologically, it's huge."
Jones came in cold, going 3-of-23 for a combined eight points in USF's last two losses. On Saturday, he was hot from the start, hitting a 3 on his first attempt and ending the game with a 25-footer at the buzzer.
"I felt like my old self a little bit. I'm still trying to get it going," said Jones, who finished one 3-pointer shy of the school record. "I'm trying to get my confidence back, because my team needs me."
Senior guard Jesus Verdejo had 14 points for USF, which committed only five turnovers, three fewer than the previous low in two seasons under Heath.
Iona (5-8) led 44-43 with 11 minutes to play when Jones hit a 3 to spark a 10-2 run — the Gaels wouldn't get closer than four points the rest of the way. Iona played without leading scorer Gary Springer, who was sidelined with an ankle injury.
The game drew an announced crowd of just 1,615 to the Sun Dome, the first time the Bulls have drawn fewer than 2,000 there in at least five years.