TAMPA — For a rebuilding program measuring its progress in modest steps, USF appeared poised to take a lunge Saturday night.
For the better part of 30 minutes, it gave 14th-ranked Cincinnati all it wanted.
But the Bulls watched their offensive proficiency vanish against Cincinnati’s 94-foot pressure after intermission in a 78-55 defeat before the second-largest Sun Dome crowd of the season, 3,609.
Still, USF (7-11, 0-5 AAC), loser of 24 in a row to ranked foes, led most of the first half and trailed by only two at halftime.
"I was pleased with our competitiveness, particularly the first 32 minutes of the game," coach Brian Gregory said. "(The Bearcats) kind of wear you down a little bit."
Though forced deep into the shot clock on most possessions, the Bulls drained nearly every fadeaway and floater they hoisted toward the basket early.
After 20 minutes, USF was 12-of-21 (57.1 percent) from the floor, hitting 4 of 5 3-point tries.
Buoying their effort was graduate transfer Payton Banks (game-best 22 points). Sidelined three of the past four games by illness, Banks came off the bench to hit consecutive 3-pointers, giving the Bulls a 19-9 lead.
The Bearcats, stymied by sloppy execution and USF’s feistiness, went more than seven minutes without a field goal.
But they rallied at the free-throw line, hitting 17 of 18 attempts in the half. Cincinnati (15-2, 4-0) then shot 70 percent (14-of-20) from the floor in the second half and finished with four players in double figures. USF managed six second-half field goals, enduring an 81/2-minute drought during one stretch.
"The first 20 minutes, as we continue to progress, that was the fight and toughness that one day is just going to be natural for us," Gregory said.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.