TAMPA — On the night Victor Rudd elevated his way on to SportsCenter, his team descended a bit further from any postseason conversation.
USF rallied from a 14-point first-half deficit before allowing Rutgers to pull away twice more after halftime. Unable to cut into the final Scarlet Knights surge from long range (or any other range, for that matter), the Bulls fell 79-69 Saturday before a Sun Dome audience of 4,605.
Rutgers (10-14, 4-7 American), winless in seven previous road games, overtook the Bulls (12-12, 3-8) for the sixth and final first-round conference tournament bye.
USF, meantime, watched its NIT aspirations further fade. Three of the Bulls' next four opponents (Louisville, Connecticut twice) are ranked.
"It's frustrating because that was a game I thought we could get," coach Stan Heath said.
"I don't think we played very well. Give Rutgers a lot of credit because they had been struggling on the road. They came with a lot more energy and fight than we had."
Three nights after a one-point overtime win at UCF, the Bulls allowed Rutgers to score 15 of the game's first 17 points. The Scarlet Knights' lead grew to 14 before USF finished the half on a 27-14 run. Senior guard Martino Brock scored nine of his 13 first-half points during that span.
"There were periods of time we played well," Heath said, "but there were just too many lapses where we didn't score and get some stops."
Also nestled amid the late first-half rally was a dunk instantly deemed among the best in Bulls history.
Nagged recently by knee tendinitis, Rudd scooped a loose ball near halfcourt, accelerated toward the basket and launched just outside the left block for a right-handed dunk over 6-foot-7 freshman Junior Etou.
Replays showed Rudd's right knee clearing Etou's right shoulder. His ensuing free throw — Etou was whistled for contact — cut the Bulls' deficit to 34-31.
"I actually saw John (Egbunu) on the backside, and I wanted to throw the lob, but (Etou) came up to take the charge," Rudd said. "So I said, 'We can probably get (a three-point play) right here.' "
Egbunu's dunk to open the second half gave USF a 37-36 lead. The lead grew to five before Rutgers embarked on another 15-2 run.
USF again responded, methodically working the ball inside and tying the score at 53. It trailed by only 60-58 with 6:37 to play before Rutgers scored the next 11.
"(Momentum) was there, but then you got foul, foul, maybe a turnover, foul, foul," Rudd said. "We were losing possessions as the game went on, and they were capitalizing off them."
As a result, Rudd's dunk was relegated from game-changer to subplot.
"It's two points," Heath said.