TAMPA ― Since February dawned, USF’s men have ended their nine-game skid to UCF and earned the program’s first Quad 1 triumph at Memphis.
But today, the Bulls’ futility against ranked opposition still festers.
Down by 11 in the second half against No. 20 Houston, the Bulls (11-13, 4-7 American Athletic Conference) made it interesting but couldn’t quite make it historic as the Cougars (20-5, 10-2) escaped with a 62-58 victory before a Yuengling Center audience of 4,548.
“I saw where (No. 5) Louisville lost to Georgia Tech on the road. Tough to win on the road, man," said Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson, whose club had a short turnaround after defeating Wichita State on Sunday. "I’m very appreciative of this win, we’ll take it.”
USF, which was seeking its fourth consecutive victory, now has dropped 29 in a row to ranked opponents, a swoon that began following a 58-51 win at No. 19 Louisville on Feb. 29, 2012.
The reasons for loss No. 29 in this drought were pretty easy to distinguish.
The Cougars, who lead the nation in rebounding margin (plus-10), converted 13 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points. None were more back-breaking than the put-back credited to Houston junior DeJon Jarreau with 21 seconds to play, giving the visitors a 58-53 lead.
USF, by contrast, converted its nine offensive boards into two points. An 18-for-26 effort (69.2 percent) from the free-throw line didn’t help.
“That’s kind of where we’re at right now against a top-20 team," said Bulls coach Brian Gregory, whose club has lost to three ranked teams by 14 total points this season. "It sucks because we’re close, but you’ve got to do everything. You’ve got to be really, really on top of every aspect of the game.”
In the first half, the Bulls held their own on the glass and managed only five turnovers, but struggled miserably (7-for-22) from the floor while the Cougars shot 50 percent (13-for-26).
They trailed by 10 when 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Madut Akec sank a 3-pointer ― only his third of the year ― to spark a 9-0 run that cut their deficit to 24-23. From there, USF managed only one field goal ― a Justin Brown trey ― in the final 3:58 of the half as Houston went to the locker room with a 31-26 lead.
The Cougars increased it to 11, hitting five consecutive shots midway through the second half, but the Bulls refused to wilt.
Three-pointers by Brown and Laquincy Rideau in a 2:15 span cut the Bulls’ deficit to five. It dwindled to three on David Collins’ layup with 4:37 to go.
It fell to two, 53-51, on Brown’s third 3-pointer of the night with 3:03 remaining. Collins had a chance to make it a one-point game, but missed two free throws with 53.9 seconds to go.
Jarreau’s put-back at the other end followed. Rideau (team-high 21 points) answered with a 3-pointer four seconds later, but sophomore Quentin Grimes hit a pair of free throws with 9.7 seconds remaining to give Houston a two-possession advantage.
“Our competitiveness and our resiliency within games from game to game is tremendous," Gregory said. "We just have to tighten up some skill stuff, some shooting stuff, some rebounding stuff. It’s definitely doable, we’ve just got to keep plugging along.”