TOA BAJA, P.R. — USF coach Stan Heath wanted the season to start over two games earlier.
"It didn't start the way we wanted," Heath said. "We want to become more of a team."
Saturday was more like it, in the first game of the San Juan Shootout.
Dominique Jones scored 23 and newcomer Mike Mercer added 12 as the Bulls beat Murray State 73-64, ending a four-game losing streak.
"We thought we'd get going with Niagara as Game 1," Heath said of the 70-55 loss Dec. 14 that was USF's third straight. "It didn't start the way we wanted. This trip is important. We want to be more of a team."
Let the bonding begin.
USF (4-5) scored eight of the last nine of the first half, then held off a couple of second-half runs by the Racers (5-4).
With Gus Gilchrist, Mercer and B.J. Daniels joining the lineup, Heath will have to find a way to mix them in. The first two were transfer students who just became eligible, and both played against Murray State. Daniels was on the football team and didn't get in.
"We still have some work to do," said Jones, who made two key baskets in the early part of the second half to keep Murray State from catching up. "We've got a lot of new players and are trying to get some chemistry."
Chemistry works best when the offense does. When Murray State cut USF's lead to 37-34 with about two minutes gone in the second half, Jones made a basket to pump the lead back to 39-34.
When Murray State cut the lead to 43-37, Jones hit a 3-point shot, again giving the Bulls some cushion.
He is operating with a sore left ankle sustained in a recent practice. He did not start the last game against Vanderbilt but did score 19. He said his ankle bothered him a little after Saturday's game, but he didn't play that way.
It seemed like every time Murray State made a run, Jones made a basket. He did it again with the score 54-47, hitting a 3 with just more than nine minutes to play.
But the final dagger came from Jesus Verdejo, a native Puerto Rican who was held to two points in the first half. Verdejo finished with nine, little more than half his average, but Heath said he might have been nervous playing at home.
After the Racers closed to 64-56 with less than three minutes to play, Verdejo hit a 3-pointer from the left baseline, all but killing the Racers chances.
Two more games remain in this tournament for the Bulls. Today, they face Wright State, which played Oral Roberts in Saturday's second game. Monday, the Bulls test Oral Roberts.