TAMPA — Must-win games in February are still something of a novelty for USF basketball, simply from the lack of any real wall for the Bulls' backs to truly be up against in past Big East seasons.
"It was one of those pressure-cooker games for both teams," coach Stan Heath said Tuesday after his Bulls pulled out a crucial 65-57 win against Cincinnati before a season-high crowd of 6,607 at the Sun Dome. "We feel fortunate we were able to pull it out."
The Bulls (16-9, 6-7 Big East) did it with stellar defense and with 26 points from guard Dominique Jones, who had 11 in a 23-6 run that opened the second half and kept USF in control. The same team that had never won more than four Big East games in a season has won four straight at home.
"When you're at home, you've got to win," said senior guard Mike Mercer, who had nine of his 12 points in the first half. "We came out with that mind-set that we had to win. Our backs were against the wall and it really helped us play hard."
Facing a fellow NCAA bubble team in Cincinnati (15-10, 6-7) was a challenge, but the Bulls were also facing the Big East's top rebounding team without center Jarrid Famous, who sprained a knee in Monday's practice. USF held its own, outrebounded just 32-28, with Bearcats center Steve Toyloy mustering one point in 27 minutes.
USF led just 24-23 at halftime but scored the first nine of the second half. After committing six turnovers in the first half, Cincinnati had six in the first five minutes, and by the time the Bearcats found themselves, USF had an 18-point lead.
"We missed a lot of point-blank shots … we missed a bunch of bunnies around the rim," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
Jones closed the game out with free throws, hitting 10-of-12 for the game, adding five rebounds, two steals and two blocks and drawing the highest praise from Cronin.
"Dominique Jones is the best player in the country that the country really doesn't know about," Cronin said. "He's arguably the best player in our league, and he showed it tonight."
USF had a solid supporting cast around Jones. Chris Howard had seven assists; Anthony Crater had nine points after totaling nine in the previous four games. Augustus Gilchrist, making his first start in two months, had 10 points and six rebounds.
The resounding words in USF's breakout month have been "humble" and "hungry." Exactly one month earlier, the Bulls were getting their first league win after an 0-4 start. After seeing perhaps too much confidence in public statements, Heath was happy to see his players let their game do the talking.
"I felt our team stopped talking. I thought they were more humble and realized that if we're going to win, it's going to be a hungry, humble approach," Heath said. "I thought we got back to that, instead of feeling like we've arrived. We haven't."
Heath took the microphone and thanked the crowd for its support, then asked for even more Saturday, when the Bulls face St. John's.
"You guys were awesome tonight," Heath told fans. "We need you to come back on Saturday … and bring a friend."