As South Florida learned Thursday night, fear is a great motivator.
Their eyes opened and their ears blistered after a halftime rant from coach Robert McCullum, the Bulls responded from a one-point deficit with a spirited final 20 minutes, riding senior forward McHugh Mattis' triple double to a 63-43 victory over Winston-Salem State.
That such a second half was necessary against an opponent from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, much less one in its first year of Division I basketball that came in with a 1-10 record, is a concern as the Bulls (5-1) prepare for a road test at East Carolina on Saturday night.
"Coach Mac was really upset at halftime," said freshman guard Solomon Bozeman, who finished with 17 points. "No disrespect to our opponent, but he said, 'You can't lose to Winston-Salem. If you lose to Winston-Salem, the whole nation will know about it.' We didn't want to embarrass ourselves, our university and the Big East."
In the end, the Bulls didn't, thanks to a 19-0 run over a six-minute stretch midway through the second half that erased a 33-27 Rams lead. Bozeman, with two 3-pointers, was key, but he played only a supporting role to Mattis.
The 6-foot-6 forward was brilliant not only during the game's pivotal moments but throughout, finishing with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocked shots - the latter a career high. It was just the second triple double in USF history: Adrian Hillman accomplished the feat Dec. 4, 1996, with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against Florida Atlantic.
The smaller Rams (1-11) were nothing if not stubborn. Time after time they'd attack the basket, and time after time Mattis would turn them away. The last time the high-flying Mattis recalled blocking 10 shots in a game "was in rec league, and that's been a few years," he said.
"They just kept bringing it into the lane, right where I was," he said. "I was just trying to get everything that went up."
It seemed like he did, Winston-Salem State coach Bobby Collins said. "(Mattis) was like Superman out there tonight."
In the first half, he was the lone superhero. The Bulls looked out of sync early. On their first possession, they nearly committed a shot-clock violation, but Bozeman bailed them out with a fadeaway jumper to beat the buzzer.
"Right from the start, you could tell we weren't ready to play," Bozeman said. "We thought we were going to come in here and blow them out. We'd seen their scores and saw that they were losing by big margins. We took them for granted."
And that made the Rams dangerous, McCullum said.
"Once they looked at our body language, they said, 'Hey, we can play with these guys.' I don't know if I've ever quite experienced a first half like that."
Thankfully, he didn't have to endure a similar second half.
The Bulls ratcheted up their defensive pressure, turning to a variety of traps, and their energy level rose noticeably. They smothered the Rams, at one point holding Winston-Salem State to a single field goal over more than 11 minutes.
Mattis, who made all eight of his field-goal attempts, said USF's success resulted from its defense.
"We were able to shut them down, and that allowed us to get some easy baskets on the other end," he said. "This was a game that we didn't want to lose - that we couldn't afford to lose."