TAMPA — With a string of near-misses that had built up into a seven-game losing streak, it looked like USF might need divine intervention to get its first Big East win. Turns out, the Bulls just needed a little Providence.
Trailing the Friars by 17 in the first half and 12 at the break, the Bulls rallied in nearly the opposite of their standard storyline, saving their best basketball for the end of a 79-72 victory in front of an announced 3,526 in the Sun Dome on Sunday.
"I do think our team needed confidence, confidence that they could finish a game, confidence they could win a game in the Big East," coach Stan Heath said. "You can only be close so many times, and it just drains you. Now guys feel good about themselves tonight. … The focus will be a little better, and that momentum will carry into our next game."
USF (7-12, 1-5) has won three straight against the Friars (11-8, 0-6), just the third time in six Big East seasons they've beaten a team three in a row. They won with balanced scoring and solid free-throw shooting, going 8-for-8 at the line in the final minute.
Junior guard Hugh Robertson, who had the final eight USF points of the first half to cut Providence's lead to 12, finished with a team-high 17 points, and senior forward Jarrid Famous was aggressive on the boards, finishing with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
"Famous quietly had one of his best games," Heath said. "He had nine rebounds at halftime. I thought he was active on the offensive boards. He finished shots, held onto the ball in traffic. He had a terrific game, good energy for him and great numbers."
USF leading scorer Augustus Gilchrist, scoreless in the first half, came through with 10 points, including a three-point play that gave the Bulls their first lead at 50-49 with 11:41 to play. Providence, led by forward Marshon Brooks (28 points), rallied back for a four-point lead, but USF came back, retaking the lead on a shot by Gilchrist with 4:40 left. Robertson followed with a 3-pointer, and the Bulls led the rest of the way.
"The last four minutes of the game, we've been struggling," Famous said. "We just wanted to go out there and play strong, finish out our first game. We did it today, and we got the win."
After facing four straight teams ranked in one poll or another, USF now has another four games against unranked teams that are a combined 4-17 in conference play, giving the Bulls a chance to get back to Big East relevance after an 0-5 start.
"That's our plan," Famous said. "This is the first win, but we want to build from this, go into Rutgers (on Thursday) playing the same way, continue on and keep the wins piling up."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.