TAMPA — Two weeks after the humiliation in Hartford, an audience of 5,115 nearly witnessed surreality at the Sun Dome.
For the better part of 40 minutes Wednesday night, USF had its home partisans hypnotized, outrebounding, outdefending and generally outscrapping a Connecticut team that had drubbed the Bulls by 43 on the road Feb. 12.
But Huskies 6-foot-1 All-America candidate Shabazz Napier roused them right out of it. His 3-pointer from the top of the key with 24 seconds to play — the last of his 15 second-half points — sealed a 61-56 UConn victory.
"That guy, to me, is the player of the year," said Bulls 6-foot-9 senior Victor Rudd, who had a hand in Napier's face on the decisive shot. "He's the reason why this team is as good as it is. … Big players make big plays at the end of the day, and he did that."
As a result, the Bulls (12-16, 3-12 American Athletic Conference) had to settle for another parting gift in a season rife with consolation prizes: Instead of being taken to the woodshed again, they instead took UConn to the wire.
"We knew we weren't going to beat this team by 40 or none of that stuff," Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said.
"But I did want to see the toughness that we had, and (USF) played a hell of a game. They were beating us in every facet of the first half and halfway through the second half."
With UConn 7-foot freshman Amida Brimah neutralized by foul trouble and matchup problems, USF drove to the basket steadily and swarmed to the offensive glass. By halftime, the Bulls had a 28-22 lead and had held UConn (22-6, 10-5) to one offensive board.
At halftime of the first meeting, USF trailed 45-14. "We were night and day on the rebounding end (Wednesday), and that was huge," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "We were much better defensively, that was huge."
But in the second half, Napier (17 points) and junior guard Ryan Boatright (14) would transition from cameo to clutch players. Boatright had 11 during an 18-0 Huskies run that gave them a 47-38 lead with 8:09 to go.
USF crept back behind freshman point guard Josh Heath and junior Shemiye McLendon, who scored their 11 combined in the last 4:44. Heath's runner in the lane cut USF's deficit to 58-56 with 52 seconds to play.
Twenty-eight seconds later, Napier found a screen near the top of the key, then found the bottom of the net.
"He just made a really hard shot," Heath said. "I've seen him hit the buzzer shot against Florida (a 65-64 UConn win Dec. 2), I've seen him do it in our league. That's what makes him special. He's an assassin."