TAMPA — He's not oblivious to reality. In terms of postseason resumes, Stan Heath understands moral victories possess all the potency of monster trucks with Mercedes tires.
But a gritty losing effort sure beats a listless one.
Three nights after perhaps their most embarrassing performance of the season at SMU, the Bulls (10-8, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) swapped momentum — and even a few leads — with No. 19 Cincinnati before the Bearcats pulled away late.
A spurt down the stretch, capped by a Bearcats dunk off an inbounds play, propelled the guests to a 61-54 triumph before a Sun Dome crowd of 5,322. USF carries a two-game skid into Wednesday's home game against reigning national champion Louisville.
Some confidence might carry over also. "This is a game we should've won," said senior Victor Rudd (12 points, nine rebounds).
"I can't fault the fight that they played with," said Heath, whose team surrendered the game's first 13 points in Wednesday's 71-54 loss at SMU. "Hopefully it carries over, because if it carries over, we build on this, we'll win games."
The Bulls' modest scoring output, despite sophomore Javontae Hawkins' career-high 15 points off the bench, wasn't totally unexpected. Cincinnati has held its opposition to fewer than 70 points for 26 consecutive games, a nation-best streak.
It's the other end where Heath was especially encouraged.
USF won the rebounding battle 36-30 and held Cincinnati — the American's top offensive rebounding team — to seven. Meantime, Heath's mixture of man-to-man and a 2-3 zone looks kept the 'Cats out of rhythm frequently.
Just not when it mattered most. USF tied or took the lead five times. Four of those times, Cincinnati immediately responded with a 3-pointer.
"And it came from different guys," Rudd said. "Different people made a play when they needed one."
The last occurred with 8:02 to play. After Bulls freshman Chris Perry's short baseline jumper tied the score at 47, Bearcats reserve Jermaine Sanders answered with a 3-pointer. The teams then exchanged three turnovers and six missed baskets in a scoreless three-minute stretch.
Titus Rubles' layup with 4:57 to play broke the funk and gave Cincy a 52-47 lead. The Bearcats led 56-49 when, following a timeout, 6-foot-8 senior Justin Jackson took an inbounds pass, faked a handoff and went in for a baseline dunk.
"He just tricked us," Heath said. "He had the ball, he fakes the handoff, we went for it and he just went the other way with it."
A momentary embarrassment still beats a 40-minute one.
"I think we just laid an egg in (the SMU) game, especially the first five or six minutes," Heath said.
"You've got to have some pride. And I thought the guys showed they had some pride today."