TAMPA — After disappointing in nonconference games, after trailing No. 13 Syracuse by 16 at the half, USF showed surprising resilience Friday night, clawing back within three points of the Orange with a shot to tie in the final minute.
Dominique Jones' 3-pointer missed with 33 seconds left, and Syracuse put the game away with a pair of free throws, escaping the Sun Dome with a 59-54 victory on ESPN in an exciting Big East opener for the Bulls.
"I'm not interested in moral victories, but I am proud that we showed a lot of character and more toughness in the second half," coach Stan Heath said. "We're going to need to be that way, to be a team that's going to scrap, outwork and not give up the easy baskets."
There was plenty of orange in the crowd of 8,350, the largest to see the Bulls in the Sun Dome in nearly three years. USF, which upset Syracuse on the same court last season, gave veteran coach Jim Boeheim another scare.
"To play so well in the first half … we should have had dominant control of the game in the second half," Boeheim said. "We were just trying to hang on at the end, and we were really fortunate to be able to hang on at the end of the game."
Jones led the Bulls with 17 points, scoring 15 in the second half, and USF got a career-best 15 points from center B.J. Ajayi, who hadn't totaled more than five in a game this season.
"I really did surprise myself," Ajayi said. "I don't know where the energy came from, where the motivation came from. I just knew I didn't want to lose."
The Bulls went 4-for-23 on 3-pointers, with guard Jesus Verdejo, USF's top perimeter shooter, missing all 11 attempts beyond the arc and shooting 3-for-17 overall. Fellow guards Chris Howard and Justin Leemow went a combined 1-for-8 from the field.
"Unfortunately, this wasn't one of Jesus' nights," Heath said. "He's been our most consistent guy, so that was a big weapon that was missing from us."
Syracuse (14-1, 2-0) got 13 points and 10 rebounds from center Arinze Onuaku — who went 1-for-9 on free throws — while sharp-shooting guard Andy Rautins had four 3-pointers on the way to a team-best 14 points. The Orange played without starting forward Paul Harris, who injured his finger in Syracuse's last game.
USF (5-8, 0-1) played well early, but Syracuse ended the first half on an 11-0 run to lead 35-19. The Orange led by 16 with 13:20 to play, but USF would not go away.
The arena got loudest with 3:10 to play, when Chris Howard got a steal and fed Jones for a dunk, cutting Syracuse's lead to 55-52. After the teams traded baskets, Jones had a chance to tie. Eric Devendorf hit two free throws to seal the win for the Orange.
The crowd was the second largest in the Sun Dome since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005, topped only by the 9,636 for USF and Connecticut in 2006. The Bulls stay at home, facing No. 18 Louisville on Wednesday.