VILLANOVA, Pa. — To say the Big East road has never been kind to USF would be being kind.
After all, six conference wins off campus in six years in — half of them coming in the 2009-10 season — is all USF has to show since switching from Conference USA in 2005.
And yet the Bulls were leading at halftime Thursday night at the Pavillion, a place where visitors rarely win — Pitt ended Villanova's 46-game win streak here last season. Despite a sluggish start in which they fell eight points behind, the Bulls had stormed back for a 27-25 halftime lead.
Then coach Stan Heath's team withstood a second-half rally in which the Bulls' 12-point lead was whittled to three. But USF regrouped and broke the game open in the final eight minutes to win 74-57.
"We've been knocking on the door recently, and I think our team is growing in terms of being more tough, finishing games down the stretch and understanding their roles," Heath said after Jawanza Poland tied his career high with 20 points and backup point guard Blake Nash added 12 for the Bulls (9-7, 2-1 Big East). "It's taken us a while; a little longer than I'd like.
"But road wins are hard to come by. … And this is as tough a place as you're going to find. So it's something that's really going to give us confidence and build momentum."
The Wildcats led 12-4 despite benching two of their three top scorers at the start of the game for disciplinary reasons. USF rallied behind an inside power game and superiority on the boards, which it continued to exploit in the second half.
But USF had to play the second half without starting point guard Anthony Collins, who suffered a head injury. His backup, Nash, responded with a career-high six assists in 28 minutes. "Blake Nash filled in fantastically when A.C. was out," Heath said.
USF pushed the lead to 48-36 on Victor Rudd's second 3-pointer, but when big men Augustus Gilchrist and Ron Anderson each reached four fouls, Villanova scored nine unanswered points.
"We just wanted to stay aggressive and not get scared," said Poland, who hit a jumper, a layup and a 3 to help restore a 57-47 spread that never dropped below eight rest of the way. "The guys were saying, 'We took their punch, now let's punch back.' "
Maalik Wayns scored 17 for Villanova (7-8, 0-3), which lost its third straight.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," said Heath, who will try to follow up this victory Tuesday at Notre Dame. "But we felt we could take it to them because they're a little young."