Just how good is Dominique Jones? The reigning Big East Player of the Week started his bid to repeat that honor with another eye-popping stat line and 37 points Sunday, as the Bulls continued their surge with a 70-61 win over No. 17 Pitt at the Sun Dome.
As it was in earlier wins over Providence and Seton Hall during USF's current and unprecedented Big East win streak, Jones put the Bulls on his back and carried them to the finish line. The junior scored nine of his team's last 11 points - seven at the foul line - to close the door on the Panthers. USF (14-7, 4-5) never trailed and led by as many as 14 in the second half.
"I've never had a guy that has elevated his game so much and really carried a big portion of the team," USF Head Coach Stan Heath said. "A few weeks ago he kind of said some things, and the message to me was how important it was to him to win. I know it's not about scoring. He knows he needs to do that to help our team win. But he also knows that he needs to rebound and defend and get assists. To be a guy that, every single game, the other team has a big X on you and you still go out and produce, it shows what kind of player this guy is."
Jones has averaged 37 points per game during the Bulls' current run of victories, to help USF creep closer to .500 in league play for the first time. What's even more impressive, however, is that he seems to get stronger as the game wears on - despite playing massive minutes.
Jones scored 33 of his 46 points after halftime against Providence, 22 of his 28 against Seton Hall and 24 of his 37 on Sunday against Pitt (16-5, 6-3)
"He's just doing what he does. Being a scorer is something he can do. When he gets the ball in transition, he's finding teammates. He's just being a great leader," senior point guard Chris Howard said. "You guys don't see what he does outside of the games. Guys are in here at 10-11 o'clock at night and he's getting guys in here to get up 200-300 shots. He's just carrying the load - maybe the LeBron or Kobe of this team. He's creating offense. He's scoring. He's defending. He's being a leader on and off the floor. That just speaks a volume on how much he has grown over time."
Pitt seemed intent on forcing Jones to relinquish the ball by throwing double teams at him early in Sunday's game. He missed seven of his 11 shots in the first half, but the Bulls still led 31-26 thanks to offensive contributions by Mike Mercer (7 points) and Howard (5 points).
The second half was a different story, as Jones relentlessly drove the ball to the rim, creating baskets and 14 free-throw opportunities.
"He's obviously a very good player. The main thing we said was we didn't want to foul him and then - 17 free throw attempts," Pitt Head Coach Jamie Dixon said. "He was 4-for-11 in the first half so we were feeling pretty good about the shots he was taking and the situation we put him in, but then you get some free throws and you feel better about yourself. We didn't do what we set out to do - keep him off the line."
With the win over the Panthers, USF has already matched its Big East win total of a year ago, with nine conference games left to play. Next up is a three-game road swing at Georgetown, Notre Dame and Marquette that could very well determine just how far the Bulls can go in 2010.
"I feel like this winning streak that we're on is elevating our game, even in practice. We're practicing harder. We're coming more together," Jones said. "Everybody's accepting their role and I think that's what winning does to you. It makes you accept the things you usually worry about. You just say, OK, we're winning, that's all that matters.
"I just feel like I'm taking advantage of what they give me. It feels good, but I haven't done anything and the team hasn't done anything. We still have a lot more goals that we haven't achieved yet."
And Jones will lead them.
"Our team has accepted the fact that he's the guy and we need to make sure he gets the ball, and we need to make sure we run our offense through him," Heath said.
"We're going to go as far as he goes, and the way he's playing, it's lifting us up," Howard added.