TAMPA — A program that has made a habit of ringing in new years with a clang delivered a classic instead on Wednesday night.
Serving notice that it is no longer an American Athletic Conference patsy, USF rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit for a 76-68 win against Connecticut before a raucous Yuengling Center crowd of 3,429.
"It was important that we play (well)," said second-year coach Brian Gregory, whose team exploded for 51 second-half points after managing only 25 in the first.
"It wasn't necessarily that we had to win; obviously I feel a lot better that we did. But but to play that hard and with that kind of grit and toughness I think will resonate with our fans."
The triumph was Bulls' seventh in a row. USF's 11-2 start is tied for the second-best in the program's 48-year history.
Additionally, the win was the first for the Bulls in a conference opener in exactly 11 years, and snapped UConn's 10-game winning streak against them in AAC play.
All of which, sophomore two-guard David Collins said, makes for one resounding statement to the rest of the league.
"We're not here to be last anymore," he said.
Redshirt junior Laquincy Rideau, the most effective point guard USF has possessed in years, led his team with 25 points, most coming via layups off dribble penetration. Single-handedly keeping the Bulls close in the first half, Rideau went 6-for-14 from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
The rest of his team went a combined 3-for-14 as UConn went to the locker room with a 33-25 lead.
"Q saved us in that first half," Gregory said. "Made some plays at the rim, made some tough shots, defended really well."
Collins, limited to six first-half minutes due to foul trouble, scored all of his 17 points after halftime, when USF heightened its aggressiveness.
Exploited by the Huskies' sleek collection of guards early on, USF held UConn to eight second-half field goals. The guests shot only 32 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes after finishing 13-for-29 (44.8 percent) in the opening half.
Meantime, the Bulls relentlessly kept going to the rim offensively, resulting in 31 second-half free-throw attempts after an abysmal 6-for-15 performance in the first.
For the game, they also out-rebounded UConn, 47-32.
"We've got guys that aren't afraid to put their nose in there a little bit and mix it up," Gregory said.
"We're bigger, stronger, more physical, and we've got some toughness. We're gonna build our program on some toughness and some grit, and at least we're in the opening stages of that, and I think you saw that tonight."
Collins' reverse layup, after rebounding his own missed free throw, gave the Bulls a 41-40 lead, their first since the game's opening field goal. That triggered a decisive 18-8 run capped by his deep 3-pointer to push his team's advantage to 57-48 with 6:02 remaining.
UConn (9-5, 0-1) got a pair of late 3-pointers, and forced two turnovers in the final two minutes with its full-court pressure to stay within striking distance. But USF went 8-for-10 from the stripe in the final 1:23.
"We won this game on Monday and Tuesday, with our practice, our extra work, our preparation, no doubt about it," Gregory said. "They've bought in to that. … The challenge is, now everybody will pat 'em on the back. We've got to stay humble."
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.