USF's 99-93, come-from-behind victory over Providence could prove to be more than just a much-needed slump breaker for the Bulls. After a disappointing home loss against St. John's and a rout at Villanova, the win might just restore some swagger to the previously swooning Bulls.
South Florida again showed that there is no quit, rallying from a nine-point deficit with just over seven minutes to play, and sealing the game even when a twisting three-pointer by Providence's Sharaud Curry with 17 seconds left seemed to be the dagger.
Instead, Chris Howard immediately inbounded the ball to a streaking Dominique Jones, who drove to the rim, scored and was fouled by Curry, who then picked up a frustration technical when he slammed the ball to the court. The result was a five-point play for Jones that turned a one-point deficit into a 97-93 lead in just three seconds.
"Seems like when we play Providence, it's a game of the wild, wild west. It's an OK Corral shootout," USF Head Coach Stan Heath said. "Fortunately for us, maybe we had a little bit more in the tank the last three/four minutes. It was just a game we had to have; anything less than a victory would have been a big downer for us."
Playing primarily with a four-guard lineup, the Bulls got their most balanced scoring of the season. Jones, who had a school-best 46 points the last time the two teams met, led the way with 26 – 14 from the foul line – but three other Bulls scored at least 18 points. Perhaps the most promising stat line was turned in by Augustus Gilchrist. The sophomore forward had struggled since his return from an ankle injury, but he produced 21 points on Saturday, shooting 7-for-9 from the floor and 6-for-8 at the free throw line. USF also got 18 points and seven rebounds from Mike Mercer, and Howard scored 20 and committed just one turnover in 38 minutes.
"The first game played a lot into it. At every time out, coach was saying, ‘You know you can get back in this game.' That shows the character that this team has. They easily could have given up and threw the towel in, but they just fought," Howard said.
"We didn't settle for threes. We kept taking it to the rim and kept pushing it. We hoped that eventually they would wear down. I'm not saying they did, but eventually the shots started to come. We were getting shots like layups and dunks, stuff like that make it an easy game for you."
While Providence launched 27 three-point attempts, the Bulls took only 11 and instead attacked inside. The result was 38 trips to the foul line and 32 points (84 percent).
"There's no secret, it's not our biggest strength shooting the three. We're going to take some, but we want to be selective with the ones we take," Heath said. "I just tell the guys, hey, that shot that they're giving you early in the clock will be there late in the clock, so let's probe the defense a little more and have a little patience. I thought we were pretty smart with the three."
Curry and Jamine Peterson each scored 26 for the Friars and nearly carried them to the victory. But Jones and Co. made sure Providence didn't break its seven-game losing streak after some travel drama from the snow-drenched northeast.
"I thought we played about as hard as we could on (Jones). I don't know that we were as technically as sound as we would like," Friars Head Coach Keno Davis said. "I'm not making any excuse for this game, but we had planned to have a really good practice yesterday, and spending all the hours we did in Boston Airport – we didn't really have a walk-through in Boston Airport – so when we got in at 10:30, it was a little late to be able to have another practice. I think we needed that in order to really help our help defense to not give them the free throw line."
For USF, the next question to be answered is how they will respond to the victory.
"I sure hope this is another start of a run," Heath said. "You learn so many things playing in this league, and one of the things you learn is you better throw all the records out the window. We've got Depaul next, and Depaul is not an easy out. We've got to make sure we have total focus there. I'm sure that they'd like to get us."
USF's Mike Mercer – "When something like that happens, the way we beat Providence before, you have confidence that you can come back, even when you're down. That's something that we've instilled in ourselves all throughout the season."
Heath on the Curry technical – "It was a tough play. Dominique made the score. Sharaud was a little down at that point. I don't think he meant anything, he just slammed the ball and it's an automatic. It was the right call. It was tough to happen at that time, but we'll take it."
Davis on the Curry technical – "You hate to have a game end on a big call like that, but I didn't see what happened. The play was over, so I didn't think the officials would change their mind if I found out what he did. I'm sure it was deserving of a technical, but people that saw it would have a better feeling for what happened."
Heath on his smaller lineup – "I knew at some point in this game that our four-guard lineup was going to be important. But I didn't know if we could play it the whole game because those guys were going to get worn down. I know it didn't look like we played much defense, but believe it or not, we had to give great effort because they're a hard team to play against; a hard team to guard."
Davis on USF's rally – "They had the plays down the stretch to beat us for the second time this year. Our transition defense was not the strongest throughout the entire game. Sometimes at key moments during games, when teams make big shots or take big shots, everyone kind of stands around to see what's going to happen – the ball went in and we kind of froze. Give USF credit. Their transition offense was something they worked on going into the game and it paid off with a big play there."