The crowd was as big as the Sun Dome has seen in years, the opponent ranked as high as any to visit USF in its history.
For all the opportunity, for all the atmosphere, Wednesday's game with No. 2 Connecticut ended up being USF's first Big East season in a frustrating nutshell: The undermanned Bulls were competitive late in a game they really shouldn't have been but ultimately went home with another loss.
Down 18-0 after a wretched start, USF rallied within three with the ball and nine minutes left, but UConn pulled away for a 66-53 win. It was the Bulls' 17th loss in a row, extending the longest skid in school history and leaving them with only Saturday's game with No. 20 Georgetown to avoid an 0-16 conference record.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose team should move to No. 1 with Duke's loss to Florida State, said he was impressed with the way USF fought back.
"There are plenty of reasons, down 21-4, to pack it in," he said. "It's a tremendous tribute to those kids, and most importantly their coach. Robert (McCullum) gets them to play as well as any guy in this league. He's instilled a work ethic as good as any team in the country."
Earlier Wednesday, USF athletic director Doug Woolard quashed two days of speculation that McCullum might not be back next season. By the end of the night, the Bulls would show the resilience that has marked an injury-depleted team through eight Big East losses of seven points or fewer, through more than two months since their last victory.
But it took about eight minutes for their game to show up, and because of that the outcome didn't change for USF (6-22, 0-15), one loss from posting the worst record in its history.
Before a crowd of 9,636, the largest in McCullum's three seasons, the Bulls missed their first 10 shots while committing four turnovers. USF's first points came with 12:16 left in the half, and the Bulls cut the lead to single digits before trailing 31-18 at the half.
The crowd was alive as a 15-4 run cut UConn's lead to 45-42, but Bulls seniors James Holmes and Solomon Jones missed the next five shots, allowing the Huskies (26-2, 13-2) to escape. Holmes led USF with 14 points, and Jones, after a scoreless first half, had 12 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks.
"We didn't want to go out with a major blowout," Jones said. "Me and James, this is our last few games, and if we can get a win against one of the top teams in the country, that's going to be an inspiration for the guys coming back next year."
Forward Josh Boone paced the Huskies with 17 points and 15 rebounds, including 14 boards in the second half. Guard Denham Brown had 16, nine in the opening 18-point burst.
McCullum said that though he's "extremely disappointed" in his team's record, the Bulls' competitive play has given him confidence about USF's chances next season.
"I think we're very close," he said. "One thing I'm absolutely convinced of, not just because of the way we competed tonight, but there's no doubt in my mind we can be successful in the Big East. No ifs, ands or buts about it, I'm confident of that."