TAMPA — USF has had more impressive wins this season, more decisive and more historic victories, but for senior point guard Chris Howard, Saturday's 75-68 win against Connecticut might have been the most special.
On a day when USF paid tribute to four seniors before a season-high crowd of 8,317 in the Sun Dome, Howard hit five free throws in the final 64 seconds to seal the win, then got to walk off the court with eight seconds left for one final ovation in what has been a surprising, remarkable breakout season for USF.
"I think that's what every senior dreams about, walking off the floor Senior Night as a winner," Howard said. "To do it against a program like this makes it even bigger."
In establishing themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Bulls also knocked a Hall of Fame coach and a team from last year's Final Four squarely off it.
"It's a big win for our program, (against) a team with the tradition and history of UConn, with a lot riding on it for both teams," coach Stan Heath said after USF won its third straight overall and defeated the Huskies for the first time in seven previous tries.
"I thought we played really well, and we needed to play well. I was really proud of our seniors out there in their last game."
The Bulls (19-11, 9-9) had never fared better than 4-14 in the Big East in four years. They have the No. 9 seed in this week's conference tournament, with an opening-round game Tuesday against last-place DePaul at Madison Square Garden.
USF led UConn (17-14, 7-11) the entire second half, so flustering Huskies coach Jim Calhoun that he benched all five starters with 16 minutes to play; his top two scorers, guard Jerome Dyson and forward Stanley Robinson, wouldn't return. Calhoun got a technical foul midway through the half, allowing USF to extend its lead to a game-high 14 points.
The Bulls would need all of those points as the Huskies reserves cut the lead to two with 36 seconds to play. UConn didn't score again, and USF made 5 of 6 free throws to pull away.
"They certainly deserve to be 9-9 in the league at least. I'd have to put them on the NCAA bubble," Calhoun said. "If they're not, they should be."
The Bulls got 20 points from guard Dominique Jones, including a high-flying dunk that got the crowd to its loudest, but he didn't score in the final eight minutes. He had help: Forward Augustus Gilchrist finished with 17 points off the bench, and when Jones missed a front-end free throw with USF ahead by four with 3:20 to play, forward Jarrid Famous got the rebound and the biggest two of his nine points.
Next is the opener Tuesday. Win there and the Bulls get a shot at another upset of Georgetown in the second round. Would two wins in New York be enough to send the Bulls to the NCAAs for the first time in 18 years?
Howard said the Bulls go to New York seeking a championship and the automatic NCAA berth that comes with it.
"I think we have to win every game. I told the coaches after the game: pack five suits," Howard said. "Don't come up there with one and say you've got to go to the dry cleaners. This team's hungry, and I think we're headed straight up the mountain. I'm not going to stop."