TAMPA — For a few tense moments Tuesday, a would-be historic night seemed on the verge of becoming a humiliating one for USF's men.
In their 2018-19 debut, the Bulls found themselves trailing Southwestern Athletic Conference bottom-feeder Alabama A&M early in the second half before pulling away for an 80-63 triumph.
The contest, before an announced crowd of 2,213, was the first regular season basketball game since the Bulls' arena was re-branded as the Yuengling Center. USF, which experienced a roster overhaul for the second year in a row, returns only three players who appeared in a game last season.
For most of the night, it looked every bit like a team in transition.
"Over time, our chemistry is gonna get better," said guard T.J. Lang, an Auburn transfer who sat out last season.
"It's a point of emphasis in every practice that we have to take care of the ball. I mean, we scored 80 points and had 20 turnovers, so that was 20 empty possessions that we could've possibly gotten to 100."
Facing a team that finished 3-28 last season, the Bulls began crisply, starting 5-for-9 from 3-point range and taking a 22-8 lead when 7-foot-2 senior Nikola Scekic stepped out for a trey. But a cooling-off spell coincided with a rash of turnovers, resulting in a 13-5 Bulldogs run that trimmed USF's lead to 34-31 by halftime.
The Bulldogs, 3-28 last season, took a 41-40 lead on a layup with 16:27 remaining before Lang responded with a 3-pointer to spark a 7-0 run.
Justin Brown, among the trio of returners, ignited the next surge. His 3-pointer with 13:22 to play gave USF a 50-44 lead, and his alley-oop to 6-9 sophomore Mayan Kiir for a dunk pushed the advantage to 54-44.
The Bulls' lead never dipped below seven points the rest of the way. They shot 69.2 percent (18-for-26) in the second half while making a concerted effort to go inside. Brown finished with 16. Classmate David Collins, the team's top returning scorer, led USF with 17.
"I thought our guys responded to some adverse situations pretty well tonight," second-year coach Brian Gregory said. "Which is good, because the only way to get better in those situations is to go through 'em…and we've never as a collective unit been through any tough times. "