TAMPA — If the Bulls do indeed miss out on the NCAA Tournament, Saturday's home loss to St. John's may be one they lament.
In a game USF needed, and was expected, to win, it came out flat. The Red Storm made the Bulls pay, winning 74-58 in front of an announced 5,823 at the Sun Dome.
"They were the better team today," USF senior guard Mike Mercer said. "We just didn't come with it. … Everyone has to look in the mirror. I personally take blame because I didn't come out with the defensive intensity that I should have came with."
The loss was a big blow to the Bulls' NCAA hopes. With four games left before the Big East Tournament, USF (16-10, 6-8) has very little margin for error and a tough matchup at No. 3 Villanova looming Wednesday.
Coach Stan Heath said the loss "probably took us out of that (NCAA) equation," at least for now.
"We can work ourselves back in it," Heath said. "But we don't have to worry about all that 'bubble' talk."
The Bulls have other things to worry about after the way they played against St. John's (15-11, 5-9), which snapped USF's four-game home winning streak and won just its 11th road game in six seasons.
The Red Storm put on a shooting clinic, hitting a season-best 58.7 percent for the game and taking an 11-point halftime lead by scoring 10 unanswered points to end the half.
USF wasn't sharp on either side of the floor, turning the ball over 10 times and settling for too many outside shots while getting outrebounded (18-10 in the half, 34-26 for the game) and often outhustled.
Just days after Heath expressed concern his team was relying too much on 3-pointers, it shot 5-of-22 (22.7 percent). Overall, the Bulls were 23-for-56 (41.1 percent) from the field.
"I thought (our slow start) set us back mentally,'' Heath said. "We didn't recover very well. We can't play defense that way. We've come a long ways. … We can still get back on the right track and keep the momentum going.''
What bothered the Bulls the most was St. John's got most of its points close to the basket, driving around defenders and taking advantage of second chances.
"We have to have a good defensive performance to give us a chance to win," Heath said. "And their defense just wasn't there today at all."
That included in the key, as even with USF's size advantage St. John's controlled the boards. "We didn't have much of a presence from our frontcourt guys," Heath said.
USF's top scorer, junior Dominique Jones, had 17 points, but St. John's made him work for it, shuffling several defenders on him. Jones, second in the Big East in scoring at 21.6 points per game, went 6-for-18, including 3-of-8 from 3-point range.
Mercer, who also had 17 points, sparked a 15-3 run in the second half as the Bulls used a four-guard lineup to get back into the game. USF got as close as 43-39 with just less than 12 minutes left but couldn't get over the hump.
"This goes with any team in our league: If you're not playing at a very good level, and you're a little bit off, you're gonna get beat," said St. John's coach Norm Roberts, whose team has won three of four overall and beat USF for the fifth straight time. "You're gonna get beat by anybody in this league."
USF learned that lesson the hard way Saturday.