TAMPA ― For the first time in more than a half-decade, USF found itself playing a regular season finale with real significance.
Which explains why defeat had a real sting to it.
In one of their most sluggish efforts of the season, the Bulls (19-12, 8-10 AAC) struggled against SMU’s 2-3 zone and watched the Mustangs (14-16, 6-12) flourish in transition in a 77-71 loss before a senior day audience of 3,548.
“I’m a competitive guy,” second-year Bulls coach Brian Gregory said. “I’m ticked off right now because we didn’t perform well, and we have all year long.”
The loss relegated the Bulls, who were seeking only the fifth 20-win season in program history, to the No. 8 seed in this week’s American Athletic Conference tournament in Memphis. USF, which has dropped six of its last seven league games, opens against No. 9 Connecticut at 1 p.m. Thursday.
Before then, it must fortify its fast-break defense, find its shooting touch, and hope redshirt junior point guard Laquincy Rideau (right foot) returns. Rideau, who leads the Bulls in assists (5.5 per game) and steals (2.9) and ranks second in scoring (12.9 ppg), missed his second consecutive contest Sunday.
As a result, the Bulls’ transition defense ― essential for a team that crashes the offensive glass so furiously ― struggled. Though USF finished with a 17-3 advantage in offensive rebounding, SMU scored 18 points in transition to USF’s zero.
“Usually those type of transition baskets occur because of poor offense,” Gregory said, “and that’s exactly what happened.”
Contributing to the feeble offense ― USF went 6-for-23 (26.1 percent) from 3-point range ― was an SMU matchup zone that appeared to give USF fits. SMU finished the first half with 20-6 run, sparked by a sequence of transition baskets, as USF hit only one of its last 10 field goals in the half.
“We wanted to play man, and we found ourselves down 6-0 in fouls and not really stopping 'em that much,” said SMU coach Tim Jankovich, who watched five Mustangs score in double figures. “So we went to the zone and it really, really helped us.”
A 6-0 run to open the second half pushed the Mustangs’ lead to 42-28. The Bulls’ deficit never fell below seven points the rest of the way. Redshirt freshman Alexis Yetna notched his 11th double-double (17 points, 13 rebounds) to lead USF.
“Our guys have responded all year long and bounced back from times where we didn’t play as well,” Gregory said. “And I have all the confidence in the world and expect them to do that to open the tournament up on Thursday.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.