TAMPA — For a half, the shots were falling like they hadn't in weeks for USF. And as the Bulls built a 20-7 lead on Providence and carried it to a 36-25 halftime advantage, there was a buzz that had been sorely missing during a woeful six-game losing streak.
Whatever Providence coach Ed Cooley said at halftime, it registered with the Friars, who came out of halftime hitting everything, scoring the first 17 to turn that deficit into a 42-36 lead in seven minutes. Despite Victor Rudd's 26 points, the Friars roasted the Bulls in the second half, hitting 64 percent of their shots on the way to a 76-66 victory in the Sun Dome.
USF, which opened the season hoping to return to the NCAA Tournament, is 10-14 and 1-11 in the Big East, needing a victory somewhere in the final six games just to avoid matching its worst conference record in its eight seasons in the league.
That road doesn't get any easier for the Bulls, who host No. 12 Louisville on Sunday afternoon.
How bad was that seven-minute drought? The Bulls went 0-for-10 with two turnovers and were suddenly being unable to stop Providence (13-11, 5-7) from scoring on dunks, 3-pointers and in transition. Friars forwards Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton led the way with 24 and 19 points, combining for 27 points in the second half.
USF had been just as hot to open the game, hitting nine of its first 12 shots from the field — as many in the first five minutes as the Bulls had hit in the first half of their past two games. In losses to Villanova and Marquette, the Bulls had terrible starts and trailed 39-16 in both games, both times narrowly avoiding the lowest point total in program history at 36 points.
On Wednesday, the Bulls had that at halftime, led by Rudd's 12 points and six rebounds.
Rudd finished with a double double with 26 points and 11 rebounds; point guard Anthony Collins did the same with 12 points and 10 assists.
Wednesday's game closely mirrored USF's game 10 days earlier at Connecticut. The Bulls took a 27-15 halftime lead in Storrs only to see the Huskies open the second half with a 15-2 run that made that lead disappear; UConn would go on to win in overtime.
Early on Wednesday, the Bulls had an advantage in a traditional weakness: on the boards, where they had a 19-12 edge, including 15-2 off Providence's missed shots.
Rudd, who had missed the Villanova game with a groin injury, had his best game of the conference season; he had been held to 15 points or fewer in the first 10 Big East games.
The Bulls had won five of the past six meetings with the Friars, including a two-game sweep last season, when USF went 12-6 in conference and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament.