DAYTON, Ohio — USF could have come in rusty, playing in its first NCAA Tournament game in 20 years.
But the Bulls were dominant from the start Wednesday night, jumping out to a 15-3 lead and cruising to a 65-54 win against California, the first NCAA Tournament victory in the program's history.
The 12th-seeded Bulls advance to face fifth-seeded Temple on Friday night in Nashville in the Midwest Region. The Owls (24-7), who join the Big East next season, were the Atlantic-10's regular-season champions but were knocked off by Massachusetts in their first game in their conference tournament.
"It's a big thing for our program here and our fans and so many people," USF coach Stan Heath said on the court during a postgame interview. "We're excited about how we played for 35 minutes or so, and at the same time we know we need to continue to play better."
The Bulls (21-13) didn't look like a bubble team, shooting 67 percent in the first half, with freshman point guard Anthony Collins coolly hitting floater after floater — he had eight points before Cal had made its second field goal. Senior Augustus Gilchrist played his best game in a month, going 4-for-5 in the first half and scoring 11, and guard Victor Rudd hit double digits for the third straight game, banking in a 3 early and pulling off a high-flying dunk in the second half. He finished with 15 points.
Asked after the game what the nation didn't know about the Bulls, Rudd responded, "I guess ya'll didn't know we could score.
"When everybody scores together like we did today, it makes everything easy for us."
USF didn't let up early in the second half, extending its lead to 32 points and allowing Heath to play his bench a bit more, knowing another game was just 48 hours away. Backup point guard Blake Nash had five assists, as many as he had totaled in the previous eight games, and reserve guard Shaun Noriega hit a 3-pointer just before the half for his first points in nearly a month. Cal closed the gap late with a 29-8 run to end the game.
USF opened with its best half of the year, dominating on both ends. The Bulls held Cal scoreless for the final seven minutes of the first half, ending it on a 14-0 run. The 13 points were the fewest USF has allowed in a first half this season, trumping the 16 allowed against Division II Florida Southern and the 17 scored by Penn State. The Bulls also came within 3 points of their highest-scoring first half this season.
Cal, meanwhile, was held to 20.8 percent from the field (5-for-24) with three of those field goals coming in a one-minute span. The Bulls committed only three turnovers against what had been the Pac-12's No. 2 team defensively. Cal's season low in scoring had been 53. Golden Bears coach Mike Montgomery's teams — which includes Stanford — had won their first NCAA Tournament game in 11 of his past 12 appearances.
Even a 23-point halftime lead wasn't something to bank on in Dayton. Iona led BYU by 25 late in the first half Tuesday night and wound up losing, and Mississippi Valley State had led Western Kentucky by 15 points with seven minutes left and also lost.
The Bulls had made only two previous NCAA Tournament appearances, in 1990 and 1992, losing in the opening round both times. Wednesday's victory was USF's first postseason win of any kind since the 1995 NIT. A win against Temple would match the school record for wins in a season, set in 1982-83.