TAMPA — With seconds left and victory in hand over archrival UCF, a big, boisterous crowd at Yuengling Center on Saturday let out a roaring chant that hadn’t been heard much for the men’s basketball team over the past few seasons.
“USF! USF! USF!”
The leader of the chant? The smallest player on the court, 5-foot-9 guard Tyler Harris, waving his arms to the crowd of 5,715 after scoring a career-high 33 points in an 85-72 victory. He also handed out seven assists, grabbed six rebounds and set a school record for free throws made in a game without a miss (13-for-13).
“It’s always exciting to have a big crowd out there,” said Harris of the largest crowd for a men’s game in at least two years. “You hear the crowd and you start doing things you aren’t used to doing. Guys start feeling a little more athletic, a couple more shots start going down, and you just feel more and more confident because you have your crowd behind you.”
Coach Brian Gregory said the win was one of the Bulls’ best — if not the best — since the beginning of the 2021 season.
“UCF is really, really good, and we had to play exceptionally well, and we did just that in every facet of the game,” Gregory said. “We rebounded well (41-30 advantage), played solid defense and shot it well.”
USF was 44.3% from the field, 35.5% on 3-pointers and 90.9% from the free-throw line on 20-of-22 shooting.
The Bulls (9-11, 2-5 American) never trailed after taking a 17-16 lead with 9:23 remaining in the first half.
USF held a 38-33 lead at halftime. After UCF (13-6, 4-3) cut its deficit to one point a few times in the second half, USF steadily pulled away from the 10-minute mark on.
Gregory said the victory was extra encouraging because the Bulls were playing their third game in seven days, including a discombobulated 85-69 loss to Cincinnati on Wednesday, while UCF was playing its first game in seven days.
“We did not play well on Wednesday, and we had been playing pretty good before that,” Gregory said. “But (Saturday) we figured out a way to finish it. Our guys knew that (Saturday) they were going to have to dig down a little deeper, and that’s exactly what they did.
“For the growth of our team, this was a huge mile marker for us.”
USF, which has shown signs this season of turning a corner, entered the game with five losses in its previous six games, though all outside the Cincinnati loss were close.
For the season, the Bulls’ 11 losses have come by an average of 6.5 points.
Gregory made a point to keep things in perspective Saturday.
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“This is a one-game winning streak,” he said. “The best thing we can do now is have two good practices on Monday and Tuesday to keep the momentum going after getting a lot of good basketball from a lot of guys.”
Included with Harris in Gregory’s praise were several players, including 7-foot center Russel Tchewa, who scored only five points while often getting doubled teamed down low but passed effectively, was strong on the boards (12 rebounds) and was outstanding on defense.
Forward Sam Hines Jr. added 11 points, followed by Selton Miguel with 10 and Jamir Chaplin with nine.
For Harris, it was his third big scoring performance in his last four games. He had 31 points in an 83-77 loss to Houston on Jan. 11 and 24 in an 81-70 victory over East Carolina last Sunday.
C.J. Kelly led UCF with 18 points, and Ithiel Horton had 15 and Brandon Suggs 13.
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