NEW YORK — It was at the same time unimpressive and unrivaled, unremarkable yet unprecedented.
USF added another piece of history to its breakout season Tuesday, picking up its first-ever Big East tournament win by dispatching 16th-seeded DePaul 58-49 in the opening round at Madison Square Garden.
The Bulls (20-11), the ninth seed, hadn't won 20 games in a season in 20 years. Their next win — they seek a fifth straight today at noon against eighth-seeded and 22nd-ranked Georgetown — could be enough to give them something else in common with that 1990 team: a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"We need to win. We definitely need to win," coach Stan Heath said. "We can't leave things to chance. … The best thing you can do is win and control your own destiny."
USF didn't make it to the Big East tournament its first three years in the league, when only the top 12 teams played in Manhattan. Last year, USF lost in the opening round, so Tuesday night was the first the Bulls spent in New York as winners, as part of the party.
"Everybody wanted to get our first win at Madison Square Garden and start the Big East tournament," said guard Dominique Jones, who had a team-high 20 points for the third game in a row. "We came out with a lot of energy."
The Bulls led 30-15 at halftime, with Jones nearly outscoring the Blue Demons (8-23) himself. DePaul, led by Will Walker's 20 points, stayed close enough that USF couldn't give its starters a much-needed breather in the second half.
USF won despite an absence of perimeter shooting; of its 58 points, 50 came in the paint, six from free throws. The Bulls went 0-for-8 on 3-pointers, going without at least one for the first time in six years. Then again, they attempted just two in the second half, so Heath wasn't too upset.
"If we would have lost, it would be a big deal," he said. "Since we won, it's not a big deal."
The post players weren't at their best, as power forwards Augustus Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous were a combined 4-for-18, with Gilchrist missing his first seven shots. Point guard Chris Howard had six assists, three on dunks to senior Mike Mercer, who had 14 points. It will take more to earn a victory today.
The Bulls' biggest win of the season came at Georgetown, beating the then-No. 7 Hoyas 72-64 behind 29 points from Jones. Today, there is much more on the line, but they already have history on their side: There have been 123 Big East teams with 20 wins after the conference tournament, and 120 of them have earned trips to the NCAAs.
Heath is trying to keep his team's focus squarely on its next opponent, knowing that winning will take care of other things.
"We've never been here before, so in a lot of ways, I think we've accomplished things we've never accomplished before," he said. "So I don't think there's a lot of pressure on us. … We all want to go to the NCAA Tournament. … We just need to go out and play and play at a high level."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.