South Florida’s men’s basketball team gave itself a mountain to climb Saturday, trailing Charlotte by 13 points at halftime.
The Bulls were able to overcome that deficit, winning 67-64 in their fourth consecutive down-to-the-wire game.
USF’s early struggles resulted from missed field goals, players not being able to make shots and the hot shooting of the 49ers’ Demon Brown.
The Bulls shot 27 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, and leading scorer Will McDonald went scoreless in an 0-for-2 first-half shooting performance.
“I have to admit I was embarrassed at halftime,” USF coach Seth Greenberg said. “My wife told me, ‘We can do it’ as I was walking to the gym, at a time when I wasn’t sure. I said, ‘If she thinks we can do it, we better go do it, or I might not have a place to sleep.'”
The Bulls found two stars in the second half. One was shining for them all season, and the other was a pleasant surprise.
McDonald came out strong, hitting two free throws, then beating a full-court press by dribbling more than half the distance of the court before finishing with a slam dunk.
The Bulls continued to dump the ball down to their 6-foot-10 center, weakening the interior of the 49ers’ defense.
“We got to man up, play hard and suck it up,” McDonald said. “We watch a lot of games when guys are down 15 and 11, and they come back.
“Thing was I should have attacked in the first half like I did in the second half.”
The senior finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
With McDonald securing USF’s post, the offense was freed up as the Bulls started nailing three-pointers.
The Bulls, who made 2-of-10 three-balls in the first half, hit 7-of-11 in the second, led by Jimmy Baxter, who had four in the game.
“In the first half we weren’t getting to the spots we needed to,” Baxter said. “We weren’t rotating right, like we are supposed to. In the second half, we kept our poise and went with Coach’s game plan.”
On the defensive end, USF looked to the bench, as freshman Danny Oglesby attempted to shut down Charlotte’s Brown, who shoots more three-point field goals than any player in the nation, hoisting 4.9 shots per game.
“I was excited. It was a challenge,” Oglesby said. “He is an elite shooter in this league. We were trying to win games, and it’s good to get back home. We wanted to get this win.”
In the first half, USF played mostly the 3-2 and 2-3 zone defenses as Brown made 4-of-9 three-point opportunities.
In the second half, the Bulls went mostly to a man-to-man and box-and-one defense, which allows four Bulls to remain in a box zone while Oglesby stuck to Brown.
“(In the first half) what we were doing was going through with him out of the 3-2,” Greenberg said. “In the second half, we said, ‘You know what, you can almost get caught going high side.’ In the second half we said, ‘Forget about that, lets play in his chest.’
“The thing about that is if Danny Oglesby isn’t tough enough to get through, it’s not worth anything. He was tough enough to get through it.”
The 49ers guard made 4-of-10 in the second half, having to work harder for each shot.
“That guy makes tough shots,” Greenberg said. “We are just fortunate he missed some of those tough shots.”
Oglesby came into the small forward position, usually played by Terrence Leather, and chased Brown all over the court, running into and around countless screens from the 49ers’ 6-foot-5-plus forwards.
“All I had to do was get through the screens and contest his shots and try and push him out further and shoot far away,” Oglesby said.
“At first, I was getting hit by screens. I wasn’t getting through it in the first part of the second half. My teammates kept extending, giving me time to get out to the shooter. Then I had an easier time getting through the screens.”
The 6-foot-1 small forward also stepped up on offense, scoring seven points, including two three-pointers.
“He has been looking forward to getting a chance to play. He has been shooting the ball more confidently,” Greenberg said.
“He scored 3,000 points in high school, so he has some confidence in shooting the basketball.”
Oglesby set a career high in rebounds, grabbing six, while coming just shy of his high of 24 minutes, playing 23.
While Oglesby was at small forward, the starter at that spot, Leather still found playing time, posting 26 minutes at the power forward position.
At the four spot, Leather had some of the most crucial scores in the game.
Trying to beat the 49ers full-court press most of the game, USF had its power forward catch the ball near half court where he was left open. Then, he would take it while he had open space.
Near the end of the game, Brandon Brigman had two plays in which he took it at half court or the top of the three-point arc and dribbled in for a layup, missing both.
Leather relieved the 6-foot-8 sophomore, missing two free throws before delivering for the Bulls.
He caught a pass on the right block, slashing to the basket for a one-handed stuff and hanging on the rim for at least five seconds while picking up the foul for the three-point play. That gave the Bulls a 61-60 lead that Charlotte would not overtake in the final 4:07 of the game.
Bryan Fazio covers USF men’s basketball and can be reached at email@example.com