SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A game of runs finally ran out on the USF Bulls on Wednesday night.
The Bulls had an upset on the horizon both early and late, but a long middle drought ultimately cost the visitors in a 56-48 loss to No. 2 Syracuse in a Big East contest at the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse blew away USF with a 26-0 run in the late first and early second halves, switching the script from possible shocker to what looked like a runaway. The Bulls then pulled themselves together with a 24-11 second-half spurt to inch within one, but that rally only underscored the team's frustration when the Orange shrugged off that final challenge to hold on.
"It's a game of momentum," USF coach Stan Heath said. "The guys in the locker room are disappointed they couldn't find a way to win the game. We'll let everybody else figure out if we passed the eyeball test."
USF (17-11, 10-5), which is trying to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 1992, needed a strong showing in this beauty pageant because it went into the contest winless against teams above .500 in the conference. The Bulls outrebounded (41-31) and outshot (38.5 percent to 34.5) the Orange but couldn't piece together enough consistency and were dinged by 18 turnovers.
"We believe we're a good team. We thought we had something to prove," said USF forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, a former Tampa King standout who had 11 points. "We had a lot of easy plays we didn't finish. A few of those layups go in, the game is a lot different."
Guard Scoop Jardine led the Orange (28-1, 15-1) with 15 points, followed by forward C.J. Fair with 13.
The Bulls went into the contest leading the league in scoring defense at 58.2 points per game, and their early slowdown approach jumped straight off the drawing board to the court. USF milked the shot clock on each possession and led 20-7 with 8:52 left in the first half.
"You couldn't have scripted things any better, how you wanted to come out against Syracuse in this building," Heath said. "I thought our defense was outstanding."
But the Orange had a few chips to play in that department as well. Syracuse tightened up the middle of its 2-3 zone, choking off the Bulls' inside game and daring USF to win from the perimeter.
"They are long, a long team. They covered up a lot of ground," said guard Anthony Collins, who led the Bulls with 12 points. "We see zones, but they are a different type of zone."
Syracuse went on a 17-0 run over the rest of the half, forcing seven turnovers and pushing the Bulls into an 0-for-9 shooting performance from the floor in that span. The Orange led 24-20 at break then ripped off the first nine points of the second half, extending USF's overall scoring drought to 11:22.
"They packed it in, cheated to the shooter's side," Fitzpatrick said. "They re-adjusted. We had to re-adjust, too. It just took us longer to do so."
The Bulls' countermove came up just short. Down 36-22 with 16:49 left, USF ran off nine straight on a layup by Jawanza Poland, a 3-pointer from Fitzpatrick, a jumper from Collins and a dunk from Poland to draw within 36-31 with 13:46 remaining.
"I thought we did a better job of playing in the paint, dribble penetrating," Heath said.
The Bulls made the crowd of 25,316 even more antsy when Collins hit a jumper to pull USF within 47-46 with 6:29 remaining. Jardine turned a turnover into a lay-in that nudged Syracuse ahead 49-46 with 4:46 left, then added a free throw five seconds later. The Bulls came no closer than four points after that.
"That's a great basketball team," Heath said of Syracuse. "We're leaving here with our heads held high."