USF is powered by its seniors, but a jolt from an energized freshman keyed a 72-71 victory over East Carolina in both teams' Conference USA opener Wednesday night.
Reserve guard Collin Dennis made six free throws in as many attempts in the final 1:37, two after being fouled on a breakaway after his steal provided the Bulls (8-4, 1-0) a three-point lead with 28.8 seconds remaining, USF's largest lead of the night.
Center Moussa Badiane scored for the Pirates (5-8, 0-1) to cut the Bulls' advantage to one, but Dennis, coming off a career-best 21 points against Texas-Arlington, drained two more foul shots with 14.7 left, pushing the lead to three.
East Carolina misfired on a desperation 3-pointer, but Badiane stuffed in the rebound to make it 72-71 with 1.4 to play. The Pirates immediately fouled Marlyn Bryant, who missed both free throws, forcing the Bulls to sweat Taylor Gagnon's 90-foot heave as time expired.
"To come in here and get this win, after not winning on the road in the conference all last year, is huge," said senior guard Brian Swift, who scored 14 on 4-of-14 shooting and had nine assists. "To do it after the first half we had, makes it all that much better."
Indeed, the Bulls were dreadful for most of the opening 20 minutes, committing 13 turnovers that led to 15 East Carolina points and resulting in a 42-32 Pirate lead at the half.
USF's deficit grew to as many as 13 before the Bulls went on a 20-8 run over the next nine minutes to pull within 55-54 on Brandon Brigman's 15-foot jumper with 9:09 to play.
Neither team led by more than four points the rest of the way, with the Bulls getting five of Terrence Leather's 18 points down the stretch. He was supported capably by Dennis, who never flinched in finishing off his 15-point night.
"I was nervous, believe me," he said. "It may not have showed very much, but I was. I'm getting more comfortable with each game, and tonight I was able to help us get a win."
USF coach Robert McCullum praised his freshman for coming through on a night when Leather, who added 16 rebounds, and Swift combined to make just 9 of their 29 field-goal attempts.
"He's kind of a cool kid," McCullum said of Dennis. "He plays with so much confidence. He came up big for us tonight."