Trailing lowly Stetson by eight points with 5:30 to play, USF looked to be doomed to the kind of embarrassing loss that typified their struggles last season.
Rallying to force overtime, USF saw Stetson up four with the ball and 2:22 to play. But the Bulls battled back again. In double overtime, with freshman guard Solomon Bozeman going 5-for-6 at the free-throw line, the Bulls put all those troubles to rest, escaping with a wild 77-72 victory Monday at the Sun Dome.
"We wouldn't have won this game last year," said senior Melvin Buckley, who matched a career high with 29 points in 49 minutes.
"That's just as simple as it is. We told you in the beginning of the season it was going to be a different look, a different team."
And yes, a Big East team has no business being in double overtime with the Stetsons of the world, win or lose. Then again, a freshman such as Bozeman has no business playing 46 minutes without a turnover or hitting 15 of 16 free throws, with some huge shots among them.
"My dad's a coach, and he always tells me big-time players step up in big-time situations," said Bozeman, who had five assists and a game-high three steals.
Bozeman hit two free throws with 15 seconds left in regulation to force overtime after former Indian Rocks Christian star Gabe McMillen gave the Hatters a 59-57 lead. Bozeman's performance from the line in the second overtime left him just shy of USF's all-time best free-throw performance.
"When you have a freshman step up and hit 15 out of 16 free throws, you're living in heaven," Buckley said. "Hey, I'll give him the ball."
The Bulls (4-0) could have just as easily beaten Stetson (2-4) by 25, as they did in DeLand last season. But coach Robert McCullum said his team might gain more from a hard-fought win than a lopsided one. Stetson had lost nine straight to the Bulls and hadn't won in Tampa since 1979.
"I've yet to see a bad win," McCullum said. "In no way am I going to apologize for having to go to double overtime. These experiences can't do anything but make us a better team. We've lost these type of games."
Last season, USF lost a similar November game in double overtime, 69-64 at Florida International.
Senior forward McHugh Mattis played the final 19 minutes with four fouls, still blocking a career-high seven shots. After just two points in the first half, he finished with 20, scoring all seven of USF's points in the first overtime. The Bulls were able to overcome 14 first-half turnovers, finishing with 25 but only one in the two overtimes.
USF's record for free-throw perfection is two 12-for-12 performances, and Bozeman had gone 13-for-13, having made his past 28 at the line. But his only miss came with USF up 75-72 with nine seconds left in the second overtime.
"I worked with this guy back in Arkansas called the Free-Throw Doctor," said Bozeman, a 92.5 percent shooter this season.
"He told me this year he wanted me to try to shoot 98 percent from the free-throw line. Right now, I'm pretty disappointed because I'm not at 98 percent."