TAMPA — There was a buzz in the air, a new banner hanging from the rafters and a lively crowd in the Sun Dome on Saturday night.
Unfortunately for USF, after celebrating last year's NCAA Tournament run, the Bulls didn't give their fans much to cheer about, stumbling badly out of the gate with a 74-56 loss to rival Central Florida in the opener for both teams.
"We're obviously very disappointed. We didn't play well," USF coach Stan Heath said. "They beat us in areas that bother me. They dominated the glass. They got most of the loose balls, the effort plays. … I was very impressed with the turnout tonight, very impressed with the students that really filled that section. We let them down, but we still have a lot of games to go."
The Knights dominated in rebounding, holding a 2-to-1 margin late into the second half, and USF couldn't piece together any substantial runs, chipping a 20-point deficit down to 12 but getting no closer. UCF point guard Isaiah Sykes went off for 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, and forward Keith Clanton also had a double double with 16 points and 16 boards, leading the Knights to a 45-26 rebounding advantage.
"We've always been pretty good at taking away the other team's top players. Their top players dominated the game," Heath said. "We could not get a handle on Sykes. We couldn't get a handle on Clanton. Both players were extremely, extremely effective."
It was a disappointing result on a long-awaited night, as USF returned to the Sun Dome after spending last year off-campus during a $35 million renovation to its home arena. UCF hadn't won at USF since January 1978 — before the Sun Dome existed — and came in just 2-11 all-time against the Bulls in Tampa.
The game drew an announced crowd of 7,717, the biggest nonconference crowd the Sun Dome has had since USF joined the Big East in 2005.
UCF jumped to a 5-0 lead and nearly led the whole way; after an early 15-4 run by the Knights, USF got no closer than 12 the rest of the way.
The Bulls' only offensive spark came from guard Jawanza Poland, who had a career-high 22 points off the bench. But he was USF's only player in double figures — he went 8-for-11 from the field, while the rest of the lineup went 12-for-44.
"It's disappointing, but it's one game," said forward Victor Rudd, who missed nine of his first 10 shots and had seven points. "We had a lot of rebounds we didn't snatch and they did. We've got to snatch rebounds."
USF gets the Knights again Jan. 2 in Orlando, a preview of their rivalry when UCF joins the Big East next year. The Bulls return to action Friday, playing at home against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
"We have to spend more time in the gym, really tighten up the ship," Heath said. "There's a lot of games left. I certainly don't feel like our team is not going to be any good or we have to throw in the towel. This team is going to continue to get better, continue to work. There are a lot of disappointed heads in that locker room that know they could have played a lot better."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.