The first conference road victory for USF men's basketball in nearly two years, Thursday night at Tulane, was buoyed in part by a fling and a prayer.
Actually, there was time for only the fling. One second, give or take an eye blink, remained on the shot clock following a media timeout with 7:02 to play at Devlin Fieldhouse. During the stoppage, Bulls first-year coach Brian Gregory drew up his only realistic chance.
PG Stephan Jiggetts would inbound the ball in front of USF's bench while fellow graduate transfer Terrence Samuel screened for freshman Justin Brown at the top of the key as a decoy. Jiggetts then would lob the ball to 6-foot-10 F Isaiah Manderson near the rim for the remote chance at a tip-in.
But execution was trumped by improvisation. Realizing the play was breaking down, Brown ran to the basket, where Jiggetts lobbed the ball alley-oop style. With a defender trailing him, Brown caught it just outside the paint, turned and thrust the ball toward the rim with his left hand.
Swish. "It wasn't drawn up like that at all," Jiggetts said.
"When I saw Steph didn't have anyone to pass it to, I just ran toward the ball, and when he threw it up, I just went for it," Brown added.
"I knew there was one second on the clock so I knew I was gonna throw up something crazy. But I knew where the basket was so … I threw it in the direction toward the basket, and luckily it went in."
That shot, by far the most preposterous of the Bulls' 24 field goals in their 80-75 triumph, symbolized the chances afforded them in American Athletic Conference play.
Any victory, most presumed, would arrive via fluke, faux miracle or flu outbreak in the opposing locker room. With nine newcomers to the program (not counting the coaching staff), there simply was too little chemistry and too few proven playmakers to make a dent in the league slate.
Instead, they carved out a mini-milestone of a win in New Orleans the old-fashioned way: via resilience and incremental progress.
"We knew after every game that we just had to keep getting better, keep getting better, then wins were gonna come," Jiggetts said.
Two Saturdays ago, in a 78-55 home loss to ninth-ranked Cincinnati, the Bulls (8-13, 1-7 AAC) led by 10 in the first half. Last Saturday, in a 71-69 home defeat against UCF, they led for 29 minutes and recorded assists on 15 of their 24 field goals.
Then on Thursday, they shot nearly 50 percent from the floor (24-of-49), finished with a 42-33 rebounding advantage, and got dazzling efforts from Jiggetts (23 points, five assists, zero turnovers), Samuel (16 points, 12 rebounds) and fellow graduate transfer Payton Banks (14 points, 10 boards).
The only smudge: letting Tulane get back in it. The Bulls, who led by 23 at one point in the first half, watched Tulane score 31 of the last 49 points.
Yet the Bulls survived, and the program advanced.
"Now that the win came, we've just still got to do what we've been doing: just keep getting better and build upon that," said Jiggetts, whose team departed the New Orleans airport Friday afternoon for Houston, where they face the Cougars on Sunday.
"We knew once we got that one, it would be like a lot of weight off our shoulders up to that point, and we've just got to keep learning off that one."