Halfway through the Big East season, USF is still getting used to the idea of having conference games it is supposed to win. But the Bulls continue to consistently come through in such games, as in Sunday's 81-78 victory against Providence at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Bulls (13-9, 6-3 Big East) used a 16-1 run in the second half - including eight points by freshman point guard Anthony Collins - to take control, then went 7-of-10 at the free-throw line in the final minute to pull out a key home win before an announced crowd of 4,333.
"It's motivation to keep working hard," said forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, the former King High standout who went 3-of-4 on 3-pointers off the bench in the final nine minutes.
"For a school like us that's never been at the top of the Big East at this time of year, we can really use that as a motivation."
USF is tied for third in the Big East a year after going 3-15 in conference play. It won Sunday with a balanced effort, with Hugh Robertson getting a season-high 15 points as one of five Bulls in double figures. Collins had 15 to go with six assists, and USF committed just five turnovers as a team after having 22 in a loss at Marquette on Tuesday.
"I don't think we played great," said coach Stan Heath, whose team is 11-1 at home this season. "Normally our defense has been our staple, but our offense kicked in. ... I thought some guys stepped up at some key, key moments."
Providence (12-10, 1-8), which lost its 20th straight Big East road game spanning more than two years, got 24 first-half points from freshman LaDontae Henton. He finished with 33, the most by a USF opponent since Notre Dame's Luke Harangody had 36 in a January 2010 game.
Some of USF's second-half spark came from Collins, who was 1-for-4 on 3-pointers all season coming in but hit a pair in a span of three minutes to give the Bulls an eight-point lead.
"He seems to be a guy that, when you need a big basket, he knocks it down," Heath said.
"That was a key moment. We've been encouraging him to take that shot. He's a much better shooter than he gives himself credit for. I know it's an awkward-looking shot, but he can make that shot. The more he does that, the more people have to guard him and the more he can get into the paint and create havoc."
Providence trailed by eight with 36 seconds to play but made things interesting, thanks in part to USF fouling the Friars twice on 3-pointers in the final 21 seconds.
Up two with 4.8 seconds left, USF's Victor Rudd, who had gone 5-for-5 at the line in the final minute, missed his second shot, but Providence not only let Fitzpatrick grab the loose rebound but inexplicably opted not to foul the 62 percent free-throw shooter as the final seconds ran off the clock.
"All I can do is coach. You can only put them out there," coach Ed Cooley said. "You can bring them to the race, you can't ask them to win every day. I don't know why."
USF has a tough challenge ahead, playing at No. 9 Georgetown on Saturday before returning home to face Pittsburgh on Feb. 8.