TAMPA — USF hung close with No. 12 Houston through the first half Wednesday night, but then the Bulls’ hopes of an upset steadily slipped away in the final 20 minutes.
At halftime, the Bulls trailed by three. Midway through the second half, they trailed by 15. At the final buzzer, the Cougars comfortably sealed the victory 83-66 in the AAC opener for USF.
“At the half I felt good, I liked our competitiveness, I liked the way we were competing on the glass and being physical,” Bulls coach Brian Gregory said. “The challenge is you have to compete with courage on every single play against them. You can’t take a play off, you cannot take a pass off because if you don’t sprint to the ball and you’re not in the right position, they are going to take advantage of it.
“We need to sustain our intensity (the whole game). But we’re not there yet. We have to get there.”
Through the first few minutes, USF (5-8) looked like it just might be able to snap a 10-year losing streak against ranked opponents. Plus Houston was without its leading scorer — guard Marcus Sasser (17.7 points a game) — who is out for the season after fracturing his foot three games ago.
“Early on we were getting into the paint and kicking it out, making the extra pass, getting some good looks and then knocking it down,” Gregory said of his team, which led 19-14 at the 10-minute mark and shot 44.4 percent from the field in the first half. “We had some good looks in the second half but didn’t make them.”
The Bulls, playing for the first time since a loss to Wyoming in Hawaii on Christmas Day, shot 31.3 percent in the second half.
Gregory noted that Houston (13-2, 2-0 AAC) increased its defensive intensity in the second half. That wasn’t much of a surprise considering the Cougars came in ranked No. 1 in the conference in defensive scoring at 56.4 points a game, just ahead of USF at 59.8.
That Bulls’ defensive frustrations mainly were around the basket, where Houston’s Josh Carlton, a 6-foot-10 fifth-year senior transfer from UConn, was having the game of his life, finishing with 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 11 rebounds. Carlton’s previous high was 21 points, when he was sophomore.
Overall, Houston finished with a 42-22 points advantage in the paint.
The Bulls were led by guards Javon Greene and Jamir Chaplin, who each finished with 16 points. But 11 and 9 of their points, respectively, came in the first half.
Greene’s two 3-pointers helped USF take an 11-2 lead four minutes into the game as the Cougars missed eight of their first nine shots.
The loss extended USF’s losing streak against ranked opponents to 34 straight games and drops the Bulls’ all-time record against ranked teams to 13-130. The last time USF defeated a ranked team was 2012, when it won 58-51 at No. 19 Louisville.
LOCAL NOTABLE: Former Blake High and Bishop McLaughlin High standout guard Emanuel Sharp sat on the Houston bench because he’s not eligible to play until next season. Sharp graduated high school early last month and immediately joined the Cougars, making him a redshirt freshman.
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As a high school junior in 2020-21, Sharp was named the Florida Class 3A Player of the Year after averaging 25 points a game and leading Bishop McLaughlin to its first state championship game. As a sophomore at Blake in 2019-20, he was named the Class 5A Player of the Year after averaging 32 points.
Sharp’s father, Derrick, who coached his son in high school and played for USF from 1991-93 before moving onto 16 years of professional ball in Israel, watched from the stands Wednesday at the Yuengling Center.
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