TAMPA — It wasn't a one-point loss, as the previous two games had been for USF, but when the Bulls fell 79-75 to Seton Hall in the Sun Dome on Tuesday night, it was every bit as agonizingly, frustratingly, historically close.
Down two with 15 seconds to play, USF center Kentrell Gransberry missed two free throws, part of a 2-for-6 effort at the line for the Bulls in the final 1:20. Seton Hall hit its last four free throws in the last 31 seconds and officially eliminated USF from the Big East tournament.
"It seemed like the breaks didn't go our way, but we've got to create our own breaks, too," coach Stan Heath said. "A lot of teams that are young and figuring things out go through these things, though you hope you don't have to."
USF guard Dominique Jones scored a career-high 31, the most by a freshman in the Big East this season.
"Jones was so spectacular that we could not stop him," Pirates coach Bobby Gonzalez said.
But Jones missed a free throw that would have tied it with 1:20 to play and had a layup blocked with 50 seconds left.
"All night, you think about, 'Oh, if I would have done this different, if I would have done that different, we would have come out with a win,' " said Jones, who broke USF's freshman season scoring record, set by B.B. Waldon in 1998-99. "All that individual stuff, it means something to me, but I can always trade stuff in for a win."
In USF's history, the run of three losses in 11 days by a combined six points is unprecedentedly close. Of 174 previous stretches of three consecutive losses, dating to 1971, none had been lost by less than a combined eight points.
The Bulls (11-17, 2-13) trailed the entire second half, by as much as nine. They clawed back, twice taking 3-pointers that would give them the lead, but both missed.
Chris Howard missed a free throw with 34 seconds to keep Seton Hall up 75-73, and teammate B.J. Ajayi had the rebound before center John Garcia popped it loose. Garcia, a 55 percent shooter, hit two free throws.
Jones hit a layup to pull within two with 21 seconds to play, and a backcourt travel by Seton Hall gave USF a chance to tie with 16.2 left. Gransberry, who had 15 points, missed his free throws, and a wild outlet pass from the Pirates caromed off the backboard and to Garcia, who passed to Jeremy Hazell, who hit two free throws to put the game away.
USF came in as the Big East's worst free-throw shooting team, but hit 80 percent (16 of 20) until the final 1:20, when the biggest shots were costly.
"The ones we really needed just didn't go down," Heath said.
SETON HALL (17-11): Laing 10-18 2-4 24, Garcia 7-8 2-3 16, Nutter 6-9 5-6 20, Harvey 3-9 4-4 10, Hazell 1-8 6-8 9, M.Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Okosun 0-0 0-0 0, L.Davis 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-53 19-25 79.
SOUTH FLORIDA (11-17): Ajayi 3-7 2-2 8, Gransberry 7-12 1-4 15, Jones 9-17 11-14 31, Howard 3-6 2-4 8, Verdejo 4-8 2-2 11, Chin 0-0 0-0 0, Saaka 1-2 0-0 2, Bozeman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-52 18-26 75.
Halftime—Seton Hall 35-33. 3-Point Goals—Seton Hall 6-13 (Nutter 3-4, Laing 2-3, Hazell 1-5, Harvey 0-1), South Florida 3-9 (Jones 2-6, Verdejo 1-2, Howard 0-1). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Seton Hall 27 (Garcia 13), South Florida 31 (Ajayi 11). Assists—Seton Hall 18 (Harvey 8), South Florida 16 (Verdejo 7). Total Fouls—Seton Hall 20, South Florida 18. Technical—Saaka. A—4,062.