TAMPA ― When you’re a program climbing its way out of irrelevance, you take any shining moment you can muster, even one far from the hubbub of March Madness.
The USF men enjoyed one for the ages Wednesday evening.
Down by 25 in the first half, the Bulls rallied for an 82-79 overtime victory against Stony Brook in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) before a Yuengling Center crowd of 1,705.
“I’m as proud of that team as any team I’ve ever coached,” second-year coach Brian Gregory said. “We were dead, flat-lined, and they sucked it up and figured out a way to get it done.”
USF’s sports-information staff couldn’t immediately confirm if the comeback was the largest in program history. USF will host Utah Valley in Monday night’s CBI quarterfinals.
“We always respond,” said freshman center Michael Durr, whose jump hook tied the score at 56-all and completed the comeback. “That’s (Gregory’s) key message ― responding. We never feel like we’re out of the game. If there’s time on the clock, we feel we can win.”
The surreal triumph gave USF (20-13) the fifth 20-win season in program history.
But the opening half was far more reminiscent of some of the Bulls’ 20-loss campaigns.
Stony Brook, which averaged seven 3-pointers in the regular season, went 8-for-17 from long range in the first half. When not hitting from long range, the Seawolves found success via dribble penetration and at the free-throw line, where they hit all 10 of their first-half attempts.
“Got on the guys pretty good at halftime, more so just about not playing our style of basketball,” Gregory said. “Not defending, giving up too much dribble penetration, open 3′s off that penetration, they hurt us on the glass, and we needed to do something about it.”
A David Collins driving layup capped a 7-0 Bulls run to end the first half, cutting their deficit to 48-30. Six-foot-8 freshman Alexis Yetna opened the second-half scoring with a 3-pointer, and the rally was on.
Collins scored a career-best 31 points, 17 after halftime.
Meantime, the Seawolves, who committed only six first-half turnovers, had seven in the first 10:39 of the second half as the Bulls’ clearly ratcheted up the defensive intensity. Stony Brook missed all seven of its 3-point tries in the second half, going 6-for-21 from the floor.
Point guard Laquincy Rideau’s layup with 3:15 to play gave USF a 62-60 lead, its first advantage since the midway point of the first half. The Seawolves would re-take the lead briefly, but Collins’ inside bank shot with 59 seconds to play tied it at 66-all.
It was still tied when Stony Brook called a timeout with 18.1 seconds remaining to draw up a final play. On that possession, Collins made a perimeter steal with fewer than three seconds remaining, but his transition layup went in after the final horn.
He then sank a 3-pointer to open the extra session as USF built a 76-67 lead. Stony Brook remained within striking distance behind three layups by Jaron Cornish (21 points), but the Bulls did just enough from the free-throw line (6-for-10) in the last 30 seconds to preserve the win.
“I was walking through the tunnel at halftime and a fan said, ‘Hey coach, that’s embarrassing,’” Gregory said. “You know what, he was right. The one thing is, all those games last year (when USF went 10-22), no one ever said that to me, because we’ve started to raise what people expect and that’s fine.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.