TAMPA — And this time, the Bulls didn't even need overtime.
USF, building on back-to-back Big East wins, took its strong play to another level Sunday afternoon, getting 37 points from red-hot guard Dominique Jones and knocking off No. 17 Pittsburgh 70-61 before an announced crowd of 5,370 in the Sun Dome.
"We've just got a little swagger about us. When you win, you feel good," said senior point guard Chris Howard, who has seen as many Big East wins in the past eight days as in any of his first three seasons with the Bulls. "At the same time, we always say, 'Be humble and be hungry.' That's the mind-set in the locker room right now."
The Bulls (14-7, 4-5 Big East) had never won back-to-back league games until Thursday, and now the streak is at three heading into a game Wednesday at No. 7 Georgetown. Jones, who went for a school-record 46 points at Providence and 28 points Thursday in a win against Seton Hall, was superb again, going 14-for-17 on free throws and adding eight rebounds.
"I feel like this three-game win streak we're on is elevating our game," the junior from Lake Wales said. "We're practicing harder. I think we're coming more together, everybody just accepting their role. That's what winning does to you."
The Bulls hadn't beaten a ranked team in nearly a year, since upsetting No. 8 Marquette on Feb. 6 last season. Jones was strong enough that USF needed only one other player — Howard, with 13 points — to score in double figures.
"It's pretty special," coach Stan Heath said of Jones' play. "I've never had a guy who has elevated his game so much and really carried a big portion of the team. A few weeks ago, he said some things, and the message to me was how important it was to him to win."
USF led 22-11 early, then Pitt tied it with 11 straight points. The Bulls extended their lead to as much as 14 points with 10:10 to play, and Pitt responded with a 12-2 run, but never got closer than four down the stretch. USF went 7-for-8 on free throws in the final 33 seconds to put the game away.
It all started with wild win at Providence eight days earlier, when the Bulls overcame a nine-point deficit with 40 seconds to play to force overtime. The momentum continues to build for USF, which now has realistic goals of its first postseason appearance since the National Invitation Tournament in 2002.
"The Providence game was very inspirational for us, and it continues to help us get momentum," Heath said. "We haven't really been in this position before, so it's a little bit of new territory for us. That's what you want as a coach, for your team to come together, to buy in, to believe, to fight. All those things are happening for us, though there's still a long ways to go."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.