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Early onslaught lifts USF men past Memphis

The Bulls score 27 of the game's first 28 points in an 84-78 triumph
The Yuengling Center scoreboard betrays the surreal start to USF's victory Saturday against Memphis. [JOEY KNIGHT | Times]
The Yuengling Center scoreboard betrays the surreal start to USF's victory Saturday against Memphis. [JOEY KNIGHT | Times]
Published Feb. 2, 2019|Updated Feb. 2, 2019

TAMPA — The outset of Saturday's game at the Yuengling Center was so lop-sided, so delightfully improbable to longsuffering USF fans, posterity might've attached a nickname to it. Something like the Groundhog Day Massacre.

Problem was, a Groundhog Day meltdown nearly ensued.

The Bulls (15-6, 5-4 AAC) scored 27 of the game's first 28 points against Memphis, then survived a second-half clinic by Tigers guard Jeremiah Martin (41 points) in an 84-78 victory.

"I never thought I'd see the day where we'd win two games this year with 30-plus turnovers," said Bulls second-year coach Brian Gregory, whose team committed 18 of their turnovers in the second half, when the Tigers scored 65 points. "But the one thing is, they had 20."

Style points notwithstanding, USF has won three conference games in a row for the first time since 2012 (when it was in the Big East), and needs only one more victory to clinch its first winning regular season since '12.

The Bulls' five American Athletic Conference wins are the most they've tallied in a single season in the league's six-year history.

"They've got a solid team," Tigers coach (and 15-year NBA veteran) Penny Hardaway said. "They've got an opportunity to do some special stuff."

Few stretches this season — or any season in recent memory — were as special as Saturday afternoon's opening half.

When T.J. Lang hit a baseline 3-pointer with 12:49 to play, USF led 25-1, and the lead ultimately stretched to 27-1 before a stunned Yuengling Center audience of 4,573.

Memphis (13-9, 5-4) missed its first 16 field goals, finally ending its drought on Kyvon Davenport's 3-pointer with 10:11 to play. Meantime, the Bulls hit five of their first six 3-pointers, with sophomore Justin Brown (career-best 19 points) sinking three in a row during a 2 1/2-minute stretch.

"We just wanted to make a statement and come out hard," said Bulls sophomore David Collins, who had 16 of his 20 points in the first half. "I don't think they were ready, and we got a jump on them."

The surreal start was preceded by a sloppy second half. The Bulls periodically succumbed to Memphis' full-court pressure while Martin — scoreless in the first half — went 13-for-17 from the floor and 7-for-8 from 3-point range in the final 20 minutes.

"He's good, and he was fantastic today," Gregory said. "Hit some tough shots. We gave him a couple of easy ones early, and when you've got a player that caliber he can make some tough ones."

But in what emerged as a fitting subplot to a wholly bizarre afternoon, the Bulls preserved victory at the free-throw line.

USF, which entered the game ranked 335th nationally in free-throw percentage (63.0), went 32-for-44 from the stripe (72.7 percent), hitting 13 in a row at one point down the stretch.

"We're playing hard, we're playing well, we're doing a lot of good things," Gregory said. "We're a team that just kinda keeps getting better, and we're tough enough and fight long enough that we've had some pretty good success."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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