TAMPA — Eighty minutes into American Athletic Conference play, USF has yet to find its outside touch, defensive cohesion and any semblance of free-throw proficiency.
All it has found is the league basement.
Frigidness from behind the 3-point arc and the free-throw stripe again doomed the Bulls (9-6, 0-2 AAC) on their home floor Saturday. Once warmth arrived, short-handed Houston (10-5, 2-0) had all but secured a 67-58 victory before an announced Sun Dome audience of 3,921.
USF, 5-for-30 from long range in league play, finished 5-for-21 Saturday. Two of the 3s came in the final 1:20, after the Cougars had rebuilt their lead to 10.
"This isn't the position we wanted our basketball team to be in," said coach Stan Heath, whose Bulls face a must-win situation Thursday night at Temple. "I think truly in this game, the inefficiency of our offense really hurt us."
That inefficiency included another abysmal free-throw effort (13-for-25) and 16 turnovers. Meantime, the Bulls' focus on burly 6-foot-8 Cougars junior TaShawn Thomas (13 points, four rebounds) caused them to struggle with defensive rotations.
As a result, Houston sank four treys in the first half, including two in a row during a 10-0 run that gave it a 28-14 lead. USF's first 3, by Musa Abdul-Aleem with 12:23 to play, cut the Bulls' deficit to 44-40, but Danrad Knowles answered with a dunk on the other end.
The hosts never came within four the rest of the game.
"We just made mental breakdowns," said senior guard Martino Brock, whose 11 points led USF. "We were trying to give too much help … and in most cases we forgot who the shooters are. They beat us off our mistakes."
Though the defensive glitches appear correctable, it's unclear whether the same can be said for the Bulls' long-range woes. Through 15 games overall, USF is shooting 52-for-200 (26 percent) from 3-point range, worst in the conference.
Until USF can generate outside consistency, freshmen behemoths John Egbunu and Chris Perry will continue getting low-post harassment. Four days after a career night (20 points, 14 rebounds) against Memphis, Egbunu had nine points (three after halftime) and nine rebounds.
Perry had 10 points and six boards.
"We just need 3-point shooters pretty much so people won't zone us," said Perry, averaging five points in two conference games. "That opens up the post and keeps people honest. We'll get in the gym and just work on shooting."