Thursday, November 23, 2017
Sports

USF Bulls prove again you can't give up on them

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NASHVILLE — Gave up, did you?

Went to bed, did you?

Decided it was just too ugly to suffer through, did you?

Well, good morning. And lift your coffee cup to toast the Bulls, still alive and still dreaming.

They won again, and now they are one victory away from a journey to the Sweet 16.

This one defied belief. This one challenged faith. This one ruined eyesight. And yet, the Bulls found a way to win again, 58-44 over fifth-seeded Temple. After one of the ugliest first halves in the history of college basketball, after a half in which it seemed as if Robert McCullum had resumed control of the USF program, after a half in which it looked as if it would soon be time to turn out the lights on the season, the Bulls won.

Somehow.

For 30 minutes, 12th-seeded USF was falling off a cliff, and by the time you braced for the splatter, it had learned to fly. Call it the greatest makeover in team history. One minute, the Bulls were being embarrassed by Temple, and the next, they were the ones doing the embarrassing.

To sum up: The Bulls overcame the Owls, and they overcame themselves, and they overcame an 11-point deficit, and they overcame 11 percent first-half shooting, and they overcame another one of those staggering scoring droughts that has haunted them throughout the season.

This is what they do. For all of their other attributes — the way they defend, the way they rebound, the way they compete — this might be the most important. Along the way, the Bulls can overcome a lot of ugly. A sputtering offense seems to be USF's natural habitat. Other teams might get unnerved when the points are not coming, but USF seems as comfortable as a snake in a bog.

Friday night, the first half challenged your senses. No USF game has looked this ugly, and no USF offense has smelled this bad. The Bulls hit their first two shots, then they missed 22 in a row. For the fourth time this season, they had a nine-minute span where they didn't score a point. For goodness sake, you could put boxing gloves on a college basketball team, and it should manage not to miss 22 straight shots.

And yet, Temple led only by four points. Maybe that should have been a hint because if USF has proved nothing else this season, it has proved it is harder to kill than Rasputin.

"We played so poorly in the first half," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "We couldn't make anything. 'Hey, we're only down by four. We're only shooting 11 percent, so we can't get any worse.' I thought the energy level on offense and defense really picked up."

Yes, energy is good. But how do you explain the rest of it? How can a team be so bad in one half and so good in the next? How can it miss 22 in a row in one half then hit nine of its first 11 shots of the second? It is mystifying. It was as if someone turned on the lights and widened the rims for USF's shooters.

It doesn't matter how much basketball you have seen. It's a safe bet you have never seen a team improve its shooting by 49.8 percent from the first half (11.1 percent) to the second (60.9 percent). Here's another stat: After trailing 19-8 in the first half, USF outscored the Owls 50-25.

The Bulls aren't about stats, though. They're about a journey. If you judge by the first 30 minutes of the Cal win on Tuesday and the last 20 against Temple, USF is starting to look like a team that has the makings of causing a little trouble in this tournament. If the Bulls can shoot only a little bit, they are tough enough, resilient enough to be one of those rare teams that makes a name for itself. You know, like George Mason back in 2006, or VCU in 2011, or Butler in 2010 or Gonzaga in 1999. If the Bulls can get past Ohio on Sunday and reach the Sweet 16, they will be remembered as one of those unexpected teams making a name for themselves.

The thing is, most of those schools were overachievers from underappreciated conferences. USF? It's one of those rare teams from the dregs of a power conference that has learned to run, and to dunk, almost overnight.

Savor this, then. Appreciate the stubbornness of a team that will not go away no matter how bad the situation looks.

The Sweet 16? You had that in your bracket, right?

No? How about this? The Bulls have lasted longer than Duke in this tournament, and Missouri, and UConn, and Michigan, and West Virginia. They just keep grinding, winning games and winning over the skeptics.

Just a hint, but they're worth staying up to appreciate, don't you think?

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