LAS VEGAS — USF coach Stan Heath has made no secret that he'd rather avoid close games.
With only eight men on his roster, Heath knows his team is not going to win many endurance contests.
But the Bulls pulled one off Sunday.
Senior Mike Mercer had a career-high 19 points to fuel a 69-60 comeback victory over San Diego before an estimated crowd of 150 in the Holiday Hoops Classic at the South Point Arena.
"Right now our bench is so short-handed," said Heath, whose squad opens Big East play Dec. 30 at Louisville. "But we knew this one would probably go down to the wire. Once we got a momentum swing, we just got energized. Over the last 16 minutes or so, we played Bulls basketball."
Though USF (10-2) led for most of the first half, Roberto Mafra nailed several timely shots to help the Toreros (5-8) rally late for a 32-30 halftime lead.
"I didn't think we were playing as hard as we needed to," said Heath, whose team beat San Francisco on Saturday in the tournament opener. "We sort of let them dictate the tempo, and we talked about that at halftime."
That lecture did not produce immediate results in the second half. Chris Lewis nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner to give San Diego its biggest lead, 42-34, with 15:51 remaining.
But Mercer answered by driving to the basket for a layup to turn momentum in favor of the Bulls. That started a 15-1 run that gave USF a 49-43 lead midway through the half.
"In the second half, we came out with defensive intensity," said Mercer, who scored 13 points in the second half. "And that just got our offense going."
San Diego, meanwhile, struggled through a six-minute field-goal drought. The Bulls never relinquished the lead, and a pair of big dunks by Mercer appeared to deflate the Toreros.
Heath said the close game served as a tuneup for league play.
"We feel good about ourselves," said Heath, whose squad closed nonconference play with three consecutive wins. "Ten wins is a good benchmark. Now it's a new ballgame. We've got to come back after Christmas and be an even better team."
Dominique Jones had 18 points and six assists to help the Bulls top their win total for the 2008-09 season. Teammate Jarrid Famous finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
Devin Ginty had 13 points and six rebounds to lead the Toreros, who were held to 30 percent shooting from the field.