TAMPA — USF coach Stan Heath has talked about the need for his team to get that final big run in a game, that "last knockout punch" to seal a victory.
And in the Bulls' 71-60 win over DePaul on Thursday night at the Sun Dome, they finally got one, with sophomore guard Jawanza Poland delivering some of the biggest blows.
Poland had two highlight-reel dunks and an alley-oop pass during a 12-3 second-half run, helping USF hand DePaul its eighth consecutive loss and extend its conference losing streak to 21 games.
"I thought Poland was a lightning rod out there for us with some of the energetic plays he made," Heath said. "As much as the dunks were really, really impressive, I thought the passing-lane deflections and really the defensive intensity is what I really liked the most."
One big key for USF (8-14, 2-7 Big East) was handling DePaul's pressure and cutting down on turnovers, which have plagued the Bulls all season. They entered Thursday with the nation's worst turnover margin (minus-5.9) but committed just five in the first half while taking a 10-point lead. USF had 13 overall; DePaul had 14.
"We finally won that (turnover battle)," Heath said. "That was a big difference for us."
Several Bulls stepped up. Forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, a Tampa native, scored 11 off the bench, and guard Hugh Robertson led the way with 16 points, including a big 3-pointer in the waning minutes when DePaul had cut its deficit to six. "That, I thought, was the dagger," Heath said.
But when the Blue Demons' press began to get to the Bulls late, Poland's big plays helped give them breathing room.
First, there was a coast-to-coast drive and dunk with about five minutes left, which extended USF's lead to 10 and wowed the announced crowd of 3,465. Less than a minute later, Poland stole a pass at midcourt and cruised in, spinning for a reverse dunk.
"Ballgame," DePaul coach Oliver Purnell deadpanned.
Considering how rough the Big East season has been for USF, facing the last-place Blue Demons (6-14, 0-8) was a welcome reprieve. In beating DePaul for the fifth straight time, the Bulls have some momentum heading into Wednesday's road game in Providence, the only other conference team they've beaten.
"We needed this win," Heath said. "If you're going to have a week off, you want to feel good about yourself. And having a win does that."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.