TAMPA ― It was only two years ago that the USF men’s season couldn’t end soon enough.
Today, on the cusp of April, the 2018-19 Bulls aren’t ending any time soon.
Tied with Loyola Marymount after a first-half defensive tussle, the Bulls (22-13) mostly dominated the second for a 56-47 victory in the College Basketball Invitational semifinals at the Yuengling Center.
“We’re playing for a championship, so guys are amped up,” senior guard T.J. Lang said. “We’re not trying to let this be the end of the season.”
The victory assures USF, which has tied the program single-season record for victories, of its first April game ever. The Bulls face DePaul in Game 1 of the best-of-three finals Monday at 7 p.m. at home.
“These guys want to keep playing, want to keep working and want to keep getting better,” second-year coach Brian Gregory said. “So as a head coach, that’s what it’s all about. I’m very, very pleased with that.”
He was equally delighted with his team’s defensive effort. The 47 points were the Lions’ fewest of the season and 10 below their average. Guard James Batemon, the Lions’ top scorer, had nine.
USF has surrendered 57 and 47 points, respectively, in its last two contests.
“We’re pretty good defensively,” Gregory said. “And that’s kind of what the game was, a defensive battle.”
Struggling for quality looks initially against LMU’s man-to-man defense, the Bulls went 9-for-27 from the floor and 1-for-8 from 3-point range in the opening half. Despite a 12-5 run before intermission, the 22 points were the Bulls’ fewest in a half this season.
“The first half, their physicality and aggressiveness on the ball had us on our heels a little bit, especially early,” Gregory said.
On the flip side, the Bulls surrendered only 22 to the Lions (22-12), who went 9-for-26 from the floor.
Point guard Laquincy Rideau, observing his 23rd birthday, opened USF’s second-half scoring with a layup to start a 22-5 run.
Scoreless in the first half, Rideau had nine points during the surge, capping it with a layup off a turnover to give the Bulls a 44-29 lead. Lang had all seven of his points, consecutively, during that same spurt, including a four-point play in which he was fouled on a 3-pointer.
The Lions responded with a 13-1 run, but USF scored 11 of the next 14 points to put the game away. Sophomore David Collins had seven points during the late run and finished with 11.
Redshirt freshman Alexis Yetna added 11 points and 11 boards for his third consecutive double-double and 14th of the season.
“To play in this and to play the home games, you have to spend some money,” said Gregory, whose school had to pay the CBI $80,000 to host the first two games of the tournament.
“We didn’t spend this money, we invested this money to play these two home games. And who are you investing in? You are investing in 13 scholarship guys that decided to come here and play when there was no reason to do that, and to build something special here, and take the first step.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.