TAMPA — Even at the Yuengling Center’s loudest moment Sunday, some of the decibels were spiked with cynicism.
USF fans, after all, knew this script by heart — broken heart. More than once this season, they had seen their team lead a quality foe late in the second half, only to stumble.
And so it was Sunday. On the cusp of their first win against a ranked opponent in nearly eight years, the Bulls crashed into that figurative hump instead of clearing it.
The hosts did not make a field goal in the final 6½ minutes, squandering a 14-point second-half lead in a 68-64 loss to No. 21 Memphis before an announced crowd of 5,209.
“One of the things that’s always the most difficult part of building a program is having guys understand the winning plays that need to be made,” said third-year USF coach Brian Gregory, whose team blew a 10-point lead in a 66-60 loss to No. 10 Florida State last month.
“These guys as sophomores or juniors or seniors, they didn’t come up through this program and (see) guys making those plays.”
Truth be told, neither did their immediate predecessors. Or perhaps the predecessors before that.
USF (8-9, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) has lost 28 in row against ranked opposition, dating to February 2012. But unlike many years in that frustrating drought, the current club at least is putting itself in position to win such games.
Three of the Bulls’ past four defeats to ranked opponents have been by single digits. The 10 losses before that — all by double digits — were by an average margin of 23.8 points.
On Sunday, they forced 22 turnovers against the tremendously talented but tremendously raw Tigers (13-3, 2-1), who started four freshmen. The 18th turnover, a David Collins steal of 6-foot-7 freshman D.J. Jeffries, led to a breakaway dunk by the Bulls junior, giving USF a 51-37 lead with 13:15 to play.
To that point, the Bulls were holding their own on the glass, getting sparkling efforts off the bench from wings Justin Brown (nine points) and Zack Dawson (15), and prospering from another monstrous Collins effort (game-high 24 points, two steals).
“David Collins, man, he’s an unbelievable player,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “He’s one of the most underrated players in the country.”
But USF managed only one field goal the rest of the way and struggled defensively against Memphis’ long low-post standouts. Six-foot-9 Tigers freshman Precious Achiuwa, a likely future lottery pick, scored 10 of his 22 points in the last 8:21.
“We don’t get discouraged. We’re disappointed we didn’t finish this one,” Gregory said.
“But our guys are really good guys, and they keep coming back to the plate and taking another swing at it. And that’s just something you’ve just got to do. And where we’re at in this process, that’s a great trait to have, and our guys have that.”