TAMPA — With each victory, USF basketball validates its success a little more, and Wednesday night's 65-51 win against Villanova at the Tampa Bay Times Forum was no different.
A year ago, the Bulls had never beaten the Wildcats, and now they've done it three times in a row. Last season's Big East tournament victory at Madison Square Garden was certainly an upset, as, too, seemed a promising 74-57 win at Villanova last month.
But Wednesday, after the Bulls pulled out to a 20-point lead in the second half, it gave a national ESPN2 audience a look at a surprising, surging Bulls team that has amassed a 16-10 record, including 9-4 in the Big East and 13-1 at home.
"People say it's a fluke, our success," said senior Hugh Robertson, who led the defensive effort and matched the team high with 14 points. "We just wanted them to come out and see it's really real."
And really impressive, especially by USF standards. With two minutes left, Villanova — which had scored at least 50 in every game for six years — had 39, threatening its all-time low in 11 seasons under Jay Wright. A late surge avoided infamy, but USF's NCAA Tournament resume now includes two convincing wins against the Wildcats (11-14, 4-9).
"I think they're the better team," Wright said. "They're so good at playing with a lead, because of the way they control the tempo. You saw it at the end. They're great at that."
After grinding out a 20-20 first half, the Bulls pulled away from a 27-25 lead on two four-point plays in the second half: a dunk by Robertson that drew an intentional foul; and a play where Wright drew a technical foul questioning a call and USF freshman Anthony Collins hit all four free throws, giving a Bulls a 10-point lead.
There was history in Wednesday's win before an announced crowd of 4,636. USF matched its all-time high with nine conference wins and became just the third Bulls team to be five games over .500 in conference play. The Bulls were led by guards Robertson and Victor Rudd with 14 points each, and USF went 18-for-20 at the free-throw line, including 17 in a row to finish the game.
The Bulls still likely need at least three wins in their final five games for a shot at an NCAA at-large bid, and those games include trips to No. 1 Syracuse and Louisville. Coach Stan Heath's focus isn't on the postseason but directly ahead.
"It's a good win for us, and now we head to Pittsburgh," he said.
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.