TAMPA — USF has given Connecticut all kinds of scares in recent years, taking the defending national champion to overtime last season and before that in 2008.
But again Wednesday night, the Bulls had to settle for a near-miss, giving the No. 9 Huskies a battle for 35 minutes but ultimately falling 60-57 in their Big East opener before an announced crowd of 5,705 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"If our team plays like this, we'll win a lot of games," coach Stan Heath said. "We're not into moral victories, but we're into getting better, and I'm seeing the progress, seeing us improve. It's coming. That kind of effort can win. There's probably 10 teams on the schedule I'm sure that we can beat playing at that level. The kids continue to get better."
USF (7-7) hung around late. The Bulls were down one with the ball and less than five minutes left, but freshman point guard Anthony Collins lost the ball with seconds on the shot clock before regaining it, resulting in a violation.
UConn (11-1) answered with an alley-oop then on the next possession with a runner by Jeremy Lamb — who had a game-high 23 points — for a five-point lead with 3:56 remaining. USF wouldn't get any closer until Victor Rudd hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"We can't be satisfied with just coming close," junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick said. "We showed up (Wednesday) to win a ball game, and we can't be satisfied by saying, 'Oh, we lost by 3 to the defending champs.' "
USF's offense faltered down the stretch, as the Bulls went 5:51 without hitting a field goal as UConn went on an 8-2 run. Collins, going up against Shabazz Napier, had six assists, five steals and zero turnovers in 38 minutes in his Big East debut. Fitzpatrick had a strong game with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and senior Augustus Gilchrist added 12 points.
Lamb came up with clutch shots for the Huskies in the second half, including two baskets early in a 7-0 run after USF had retaken the lead.
"They were terrific. I thought Stan's kids really played hard," said Huskies assistant coach George Blaney, filling in as coach Jim Calhoun started an NCAA-mandated three-game suspension. "We told them right after the game that any win in the Big East on the road is a great win."
The Bulls actually led before the opening tip. UConn was assessed a technical foul for not submitting its starting lineup to the official scorer in time, and Shaun Noriega hit one free throw before the tip. A 3-pointer by Noriega then a two from Fitzpatrick helped the Bulls to a 12-4 lead, and UConn didn't get its first lead until there were eight seconds left in the half and Roscoe Smith hit two free throws for a 30-28 advantage.
USF has played UConn close in recent years, losing in overtime in Hartford last season and in Tampa in 2008, and by seven in Tampa in 2010. Well into the second half, that looked to be the case again, with USF leading 34-32 five minutes in, buoyed by strong defense and aggressive rebounding.
The downtown crowd — USF's Sun Dome is undergoing $35 million in renovations this season — was the smallest UConn has played to in nearly two years.
USF stays home for its second Big East game, hosting Rutgers — whom the Bulls have beaten in three of five meetings — at noon Sunday at the newly named Tampa Bay Times Forum.