NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Through three seasons and two coaching staffs, the losing streak endured, following like a rain cloud every time USF hit the road in their new conference.
Twenty-three Big East road games. Twenty-three losses.
That changed, finally and mercifully, Saturday night at the Louis Brown Athletic Center as USF started strong then held on for a 54-52 win at Rutgers, the only team with a worse Big East record.
"It's over with," said Kentrell Gransberry, a fifth-year senior who transferred from LSU in 2005. "We took it off our back."
Gransberry howled in delight at the final horn after the Bulls (12-17, 3-13 Big East) won with a flawless defensive stand on the last play.
After a timeout with 16 seconds left, the Scarlet Knights tried a screen-and-roll at the top of the key. USF jumped out at them hard, nearly getting a turnover then forcing freshman guard Mike Coburn to attempt an awkward and futile 3-pointer as time expired.
"I couldn't have drew it up any better," USF coach Stan Heath said. "It was really probably our best defensive stretch. We played good defense the whole game, but that particular segment of the game was exactly what we need. It couldn't have been executed any better."
Fifteenth of 16 teams in the Big East, the Bulls won't qualify for the conference tournament. They had lost 13 of their past 14. But for one night, they were able to get the type of close win that had eluded them.
"I think it can do a lot for us, because we've been so close this whole year," said Heath, who took over for Robert McCullum this season.
The Bulls had an early advantage, with Jesus Verderjo scoring 12 of their first 20, including 3-pointers on three straight possessions. The lead was 27-11 with 6:58 left before halftime.
Rutgers (10-20, 2-15) chipped away and made a push in the final 10 minutes that finally produced a 50-49 lead when Anthony Farmer (19 points) pulled up for a floater from the right side with 1:47 left.
USF's Dominique Jones hit a free throw to tie the score, and after an exchange of baskets, Jones eluded Rutgers' attempts to force him to his left. He drove right, pulling up for a short bank shot off the glass and a 54-52 lead with 37 seconds left.
One more defensive effort and the Bulls had their win, long-awaited if a bit ugly.
"I'll take it," Gransberry said.