The University of South Florida Bulls, who had struggled from the free-throw line all season, were uncanny there Saturday night against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. The Bulls hit 25 of 27 free throws and erased an eight-point halftime deficit and roll to a 75-66 win before a homecoming crowd of 6,252 at the Sun Dome.
USF (16-8 overall and 8-4 in the Sun Belt Conference) can now equal or surpass its best-ever conference record of 9-5 during the 1983-84 season.
And with Jacksonville (11-15, 4-9) upsetting Old Dominion (12-11, 5-5) and North Carolina-Charlotte (13-10, 5-5) beating Western Kentucky (11-15, 6-6) earlier on Saturday, the Bulls find themselves alone again in second.
The Bulls haven't finished as high as second in the conference since the 1978-79 season. In the last four years, they have finished seventh three times and last once.
USF has two more conference games to play _ at home against Western Kentucky on Monday and at Jacksonville on Thursday. The winner of the Sun Belt tournament, March 3-5 in Birmingham, Ala., earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulls, who hadn't won a game when trailing at intermission this year, are also again thinking about a possible National Invitation Tournament bid, too, thanks to their free throws.
"They just did a great job of pressure free-throw shooting," VCU coach Sonny Smith said. "They made them and they made a lot of them. It was a special Saturday night."
Indeed. This was a team that entered the game shooting only 67 percent from the line, which cost them dearly in losses to Florida State and Houston.
But perhaps the game's biggest surprise came during the player introductions. USF's Marvin Taylor, who 48 hours earlier was carried off the Old Dominion court on a stretcher with an injured back, started. In fact, he hit the Bulls' first basket to tie the game 2-2.
"I didn't think I'd be able to play when I got up this morning," Taylor said. "But I told coach (Bobby Paschal) before we went out for warmups I wanted to give it a try."
USF took its only lead of the first half, 7-6, when Hakim Shahid hit a 5-foot hook, was fouled by Bobby Reddish and then sank his free throw with 16:34 left.
But the Rams (9-15, 3-8) scored six unanswered points and opened up a six-point advantage, 15-9, when Elander Lewis hit a three-pointer with 13:39 remaining in the half. The Bulls rallied to tie it 15-15 on two dunks by Shahid and a Bobby Russell jumper.
But VCU, which had beaten USF seven straight times before the Bulls won 68-65 in Richmond last month, again opened up a six-point lead, 30-24, on Chris Bower's second three-pointer of the half.
Then, both teams decided to play giveaway during the last six minutes of the half. USF ended the half with 14 turnovers, most unforced against VCU's matchup zone defense, while VCU had 10. VCU had a 34-26 halftime lead.
"We definitely struggled against their matchup zone in the first half and didn't adjust well," Paschal said. "But the kids listened to the minor suggestions we made at halftime and we did a much better job of attacking their defense."
After the Bulls fell behind by 10 just 61 seconds into the second half, a Russell jumper and consecutive three-pointers by Radenko Dobras keyed a 16-2 run and a 44-40 USF lead with 12:53 to play in the game.
VCU battled back to tie it 48-48, but the Bulls charged to a six-point lead 65-59 with 3:33 left in the game as they hit 12 straight free throws. The Bulls then iced the game with 8-of-10 free throw shooting down the stretch.
Dobras led USF with 21 points, Shahid had 19 and Taylor 12. Dewayne Garner led the Rams with 17 points.
Old Dominion 72
JACKSONVILLE _ Senior forward Dee Brown scored 26 points to lead Jacksonville University to an 81-72 victory over Old Dominion.
Jacksonville is now 11-15. Old Dominion falls to 12-11.
Brown also grabbed eight rebounds. Senior guard Curtis Taylor chipped in 22 points and another eight rebounds.
Jacksonville trailed by as many as nine points and led by as many as 10 in the first half. The Dolphins ended the first two quarters down 36-28.
In the second half, Jacksonville scored the first six points and went on a 19-point run to take a 47-42 with 12:43 remaining. The Dolphins never trailed again.
Old Dominion's top scorer was senior forward Anthony Carver, with 28 points and 12 rebounds. Darrin McDonald, a senior guard, scored 17 points for the Monarchs while standout center Chris Gatling sat out the game with an injury.
"It's true they played without Chris Gatling, but we've played without our center, Sean Byrd, all year," said Jacksonville coach Rich Haddad. "All's fair."