After back-to-back road losses that threatened to end their NCAA hopes, USF rallied again, defeating Cincinnati 65-57 before a season-best crowd of 6,607 at the Sun Dome. Just as impressive is that the Bulls did so without leading rebounder Jarrid Famous, and against a team that leads the nation in rebound margin.
While Famous sat out with a knee sprain suffered during Monday's practice, USF held its own on the glass and used suffocating defense to cruise to a victory that was much more one-sided than the final score. UC trailed by as many as 17 points in the second half and had just 33 points on the scoreboard with six minutes remaining in the game.
So what was the difference for the Bulls?
"I thought our team stopped talking. I thought they were more humble and realized that if we're going to win, it's going to be with a hungry and humble approach," head coach Stan Heath said. "I think we got back to that instead of feeling like we've arrived, because we haven't."
It also didn't hurt USF that star guard Dominique Jones was his old self after struggling in the losses at Notre Dame and Marquette. Jones led all scorers with 26 points and produced a very efficient night overall that also included five rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.
The effort earned Jones another convert in the form of Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin.
"Dominique Jones is the best player in the nation that the nation doesn't know about. When you get 26 points on 12 shots, you're playing. We didn't have anyone step up tonight and match him. It's as simple as that," Cronin said. "Very few guys in the college game can score from the three-point line, score off the dribble and get all the way to the rim. He does all three, and the thing is that he does it within the confines of what South Florida is doing as a team. He doesn't do it by alienating his teammates. He's impressive."
As impressive as Jones was, however, the key offensive stat line for the game may have been turned in by Mike Mercer and Anthony Crater. The duo had been mostly ineffective recently, but combined for 21 points (Mercer 12, Crater 9) on 9-for-14 shooting from the floor. They gave the added offensive push USF needed in the absence of Famous.
"That's huge. When those guys are making shots, it's a big lift. They're capable," Heath said. "We've been talking to them about just stepping inside that three-point line to look at the 17- or 15-foot shot. I think for the most part they did. They might have snuck one (three) in there when I wasn't looking, but they stuck with the 15-17-foot shot, which is a better shot for them. Their offensive presence takes a load off some of the other guys out there - especially Dominique."
Crater and Mercer were just as key on the defensive end, forcing many of UC's 16 turnovers that led to fast-break points for the Bulls. Heath also credited senior guard Chris Howard for his one-on-one matchup with the Bearcats' Deonte Vaughn.
"Chris Howard did a phenomenal job on Deonte Vaughn. He had 14, but most of those were late," Heath said. "That was the key right there. He had 20 points the first time around and really controlled the game for his team. In this game, we did a much better job of making things harder for him."
"We had a defensive mindset to just heat up the guards. We noticed in the first game we played against them that they didn't really handle pressure. When they crossed half court, we just wanted to really get up in them. It worked out," added Mercer.
Up next is the next "must win" game in what will be a series if the Bulls hope to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992. USF hosts St. John's on Saturday at noon. Famous' status for that game is uncertain, although Heath said he expects his junior center to be available. A complete MRI on Famous' knee will be done on Wednesday to determine the full extent of the injury.