TAMPA ― Just when their February fade seemed destined to continue Wednesday night, USF’s men found something they’ve rarely encountered this lackluster season.
The Bulls (12-16, 5-10 American Athletic Conference) got 3-pointers from Xavier Castaneda, Justin Brown and Laquincy Rideau in overtime to escape the Yuengling Center with a 73-68 victory against East Carolina before a modest audience of 2,692.
The improbable end ― USF was 4-for-25 from long range in regulation ― snapped the Bulls’ four-game skid. The AAC’s worst free-throw shooting team coming in (64.4 percent), USF went 5-for-6 from the stripe in overtime, capped by Rideau’s pair with 5.6 second to play to seal things.
“We got the same (long-range) looks in overtime that we did previous in regulation," Bulls coach Brian Gregory said.
"We’ve just got to keep producing good shots and keep believing that they’re gonna go in. All things considered, today was a pretty good day. I thought we played pretty well.”
Prior to that late shooting tear, the Bulls appeared on the verge of squandering another solid effort on defense and the glass (44-33 rebound advantage).
Befitting their modus operandi, the Bulls forced ECU into an 0-for-8 stretch from the floor during a 9-0 run late in the first half, tying the score at 25-all. Despite going 2-for-15 from long range in the opening 20 minutes, the Bulls trailed by only one at intermission.
But AAC scoring leader Jayden Gardner (19 points) found his groove midway through the second, scoring nine in a row at one point as ECU (11-18, 5-11) built a 55-48 lead.
The Bulls answered with a 9-2 run, highlighted by Rideau’s 3-pointer with 2:43 to play that tied the score at 57-all. USF failed to score on its next two possessions, but Brown (18 points, nine rebounds) hit a pair of free throws with 45.4 seconds to go, and ECU sophomore Tremont Robinson-White answered with a runner with 24 seconds remaining to tie things.
USF played for the last shot on the final possession of regulation, ending with David Collins missing an off-balance, contested shot in the lane.
The long-range clinic commenced from there, with Castaneda’s and Brown’s bombs coming within a minute of each other, and Rideau hitting his atop the key with 18 seconds to play to give the hosts a 71-65 lead.
It capped a grueling seven-day stretch in which USF played three games and endured travel complications prior to road losses at Wichita State and Connecticut.
“So a lot of the credit goes to the toughness and character of our guys,” Gregory said. "We didn’t play great in stretches, and then in other stretches we played really, really well.”