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Free throws play key role in USF's last-second loss

For USF, it was the same, scrappy recipe that produced a rare road win at East Carolina on Wednesday: battling back from a double-digit halftime deficit and playing good enough defense to have a chance in the final seconds.

Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham, however, the Bulls missed one key ingredient. And when their free throws didn't fall, they did 62-61.

"When you have a team like UAB on your homecourt and you make 52 percent of your free throws," USF coach Robert McCullum said, "I don't know that you can reasonably expect to win."

Freshman guard Collin Dennis, who went 6-for-6 at the line during the final 1:37 against ECU, hit a free throw to tie the score with 10 seconds left but missed another that would have put the Bulls ahead. Dennis, who had rebounded a shot by Terrence Leather, finished 2-for-6 at the line, and USF finished 11-of-21.

With the score tied, Blazers guard Donell Taylor found reserve center Marques Lewis under the basket, and Lewis was fouled by center Solomon Jones with three seconds left. After missing his first attempt, Lewis bounced in the second for a 62-61 lead, quieting an announced Sun Dome crowd of 3,108, easily the Bulls' largest this season.

USF, having to go the length of the court, had Jones throw a 70-foot inbound pass that caromed off two Blazers. Leather picked up the loose ball and got off a desperation heave before the buzzer, but his offbalance shot from in front of the Bulls bench fell short.

For most of the game, USF (8-5, 1-1) held its own against a Sweet 16 team from last season. Ronell Taylor led the Blazers, who finished 16-of-24 from the line, with 17 points. Neither team led by more than four points until the Blazers (12-3, 2-0) went on an 18-4 run late in the first half for a 42-31 lead.

Led by Leather (16 points, 14 rebounds) and Brian Swift (16 points, four 3-pointers), the Bulls clawed back, and consecutive 3-pointers by James Holmes tied the score at 60 with 1:36 to play.

In the teams' last matchup, the Blazers hit a 3-pointer with one second remaining for a 61-59 win. This loss wasn't any easier, but Leather said the strong second half gives USF something to build on.

"UAB's a Sweet 16 team from last year, but every loss is tough," said Leather, who was limited to eight shots from the field, hounded by steady double-teaming. "Hopefully, we come back to the lab and right our wrongs."

Free throws had been an area of great improvement for USF, which came in at 71.6 percent, up from 65.4 last season. After hitting 72 percent against ECU, the Bulls followed with their worst game of this season at the line.

"It's tough because it's been one of our strengths for the season," Swift said.

"To have a big game like this, at home, and shoot 52 percent, it's kind of embarrassing to me, especially being as good a free-throw team as we are. We hit our free throws down the stretch, (and) I think we're sitting up here smiling right now."