TAMPA ― USF fans who invested in the 2018-19 Bulls are getting some of the greatest value in program history.
The latest version possesses flair for both the historic and dramatic.
Down by 13 in the first half against American Athletic Conference doormat East Carolina, the Bulls rallied for a bizarre 72-68 overtime victory Sunday in the nightcap of a Yuengling Center doubleheader.
USF (17-6, 7-4 AAC) is on its first five-game winning streak in conference play since 1992, when it was in the Metro. The Bulls have won at least five in a row twice already this season, the first time the program has achieved such a feat since 1990-91.
“This was our vision the whole time,” said sophomore David Collins, who came a rebound shy of a double double (21 points, nine rebounds). “We knew we had people doubting us, and we just had to go out there and show everybody that we’re here.”
Collins and Co. head to Orlando on Wednesday for a showdown with UCF (17-5, 7-3) suddenly brimming with postseason implications.
But back to February madness.
The Bulls, who entered the weekend ranked 329th nationally in free-throw percentage (63.7 percent), won Sunday’s game at the line.
USF had no field goals in the final 11 minutes, but it went 6-for-8 from the line down the stretch in regulation, then hit 10 of 14 (71.4 percent) in overtime.
“When we play really well, we can compete with just about anybody. If we don’t play well, we’re not gonna beat anybody,” Bulls second-year coach Brian Gregory said.
“What we did (Sunday) was somewhere in the middle, and then we’ve got to figure out a way to win it. And that’s what our guys did. Our guys figured out a way to win that game.”
Initially, the Pirates (9-14, 2-9) flourished from an altogether different line.
In what would serve as a first-half harbinger, ECU hit its first four 3-pointers and had a 10-point lead less than four minutes into the game.
The Pirates cooled off only slightly, shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor (and hitting 6 of 8 3-pointers) en route to a 39-28 halftime lead. Guard Shawn Williams led the way, hitting all four of his 3s in the opening half.
ECU went 0-for-4 from long range the rest of the way. Meantime, the Bulls dominated the glass, finishing with a 46-22 rebound advantage.
But the Pirates never went away, scoring eight in a row late in the second half for a 60-56 lead. They still led by two when Bulls point guard Laquincy Rideau hit two free throws with 12.7 seconds remaining, tying the score at 62. On ECU’s ensuing possession, Williams’ off-balance jumper was blocked by 6-foot-9 freshman Mayan Kiir, forcing overtime.
“If Mayan isn’t on the ball, (Williams) gets the shot off,” Gregory said. “Mayan’s the only guy in the gym that could get a block on that shot.”
With three players fouled out, East Carolina went 2-for-8 from the floor in overtime. The Bulls never even attempted a field goal.
Turns out, they didn’t have to.
“Hard work pays off,” Collins said. “We shoot free throws every day, and we knew they were gonna fall eventually.”
USF WOMEN FALL: In the opener, freshman Elise Pinzan’s runner with a second remaining fell well short, capping 30 percent shooting (18-for-60) for USF in a 54-52 loss to Houston.
The Bulls (12-12, 3-7 AAC) led 44-39 early in the fourth quarter before the Cougars (12-11, 5-5) embarked on an 11-0 run, holding USF to two field goals in the final 9:23.
“Our two go-to guys are in street clothes,” said Bulls coach Jose Fernandez, who has lost four players (including three starters) to season-ending injuries. “We just struggle to make plays down the stretch where we can throw it to somebody that can go get us a basket.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.