South Florida didn't flinch in the face of No. 16-ranked Memphis' stifling defense, didn't yield to massive power forward Chris Massie and didn't wilt despite the Tigers' 11-game winning streak and the pro-Memphis throng rooting to make it 12.
But an age-old basketball adage and a longstanding USF bugaboo conspired against the Bulls and lifted Memphis to a 62-56 win in a Conference USA tournament quarterfinal at Freedom Hall: Tired legs caused missed jump shots, and free throws win _ or lose _ close games.
One day after a 76-74 win against No. 7 seed DePaul, No. 10 USF shot just 1-for-15 from 3-point range and made only 13 of 26 free throws.
"There's a very, very thin line between winning and losing, and we were unable to cross that line," USF coach Seth Greenberg said. "We played our hearts out against a great Memphis team. We did a lot of terrific things, I thought we controlled the tempo of the game. But we (shot 3-pointers poorly) and we didn't make free throws."
USF (15-14), which split regular-season games against the Tigers, had the game's largest lead, seven points, in the first half and led by five early in the second. Memphis (23-5) rallied to take the lead, but the upset was well within USF's grasp in the final minute.
Trailing 57-55 with 42 seconds left, USF senior center Will McDonald (team highs of 16 points and nine rebounds) missed two free throws.
"I thought I made them," said McDonald, who made 66 percent of his free throws coming in. "When I shot it, I just knew I'd made it, but I missed."
Memphis guard Antonio Burks (game-high eight assists) made two free throws with 30 seconds left to make it 59-55. USF's Brian Swift drove with 23 seconds remaining but stepped on the end line for a turnover. Memphis freshman Rodney Carney made 3-of-4 free throws to finish it.
The final margin matched Memphis' largest lead. The No. 2-seeded Tigers play No. 3 Louisville in the first semifinal today.
"You have to give South Florida all the credit in the world. They play zone the way the Temple teams used to," said Memphis coach John Calipari, whose team shot 35.6 percent and was under 39 percent in all three games against USF this season. "They're big, active, they're long on the wings, they contest shots. If we didn't have Chris to throw it to we'd be taking all jump shots."
"Chris" would be the 6-foot-9, 253-pound Massie, who had game highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds and helped get USF big men Terrence Leather and McDonald in foul trouble. Memphis improved to 17-1 in games with Massie and Burks in the lineup.
While Memphis rested with a bye Wednesday, USF was surviving a slugfest with DePaul, and that might have made the difference. Against DePaul, the Bulls made 52.4 percent of their 3s (11-of-21) compared with 6.7 percent against Memphis.
Jimmy Baxter was 0-for-3 on 3s one day after playing 40 minutes, and Reggie Kohn (11 points, four assists), who played 37 minutes each day, made 7-of-10 3s Wednesday but was 0-for-8 Thursday.
"It was just a bad night shooting," said Kohn, USF's all-time leader in 3-pointers. "You can't blame (fatigue) for our shooting. Everybody grew up playing three games, four games a day, playing all the time.
"It could affect us a little bit, but that's not a reason for not making shots."
The loss was USF's 31st in a row against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Memphis was not ranked when USF won in January. The Bulls also were denied their first multiwin C-USA tournament.
In most computer polls and the RPI (strength of schedule), USF is ranked just over 100, making it a long shot to earn its third NIT bid in the past four seasons and likely ending the prolific careers of Kohn and McDonald.
"I'd hate for this to be our last game," McDonald said. "I'd hate to go out my (senior) season missing my last two free throws."
"If it's our last game, obviously it's difficult to go out losing," Kohn said. "It's sad, but at the same time, the past four years have been a great four years."