To say the atmosphere at the Sun Dome on Wednesday night was unusual would be an understatement.
After No. 2 Connecticut (26-2, 13-2) opened the game with an 18-0 run, it seemed USF (6-22, 0-15) was in for a long night. But with 9,636 fans in attendance, the Bulls were able to put together a second-half rally and come as close as within three points of the Huskies. However, it wouldn’t be enough as Connecticut held on to win 66-53.
Early in the game it looked as though the Huskies were in their pregame shoot-around. Connecticut made nine of its first 13 field goals before USF junior forward Melvyn Richardson finally scored with a free throw with 12:16 left in the first half.
“(When) you fall behind 18-zip there’s nowhere to go but up,” coach Robert McCullum said. “We’re down 14 (or) 15, and we talked about, ‘Let’s get this thing to 10 or under at halftime, and we can do that.'”
The Huskies took a 31-18 lead into the locker room at halftime, while the Bulls shot just 20 percent from the field. Senior center Solomon Jones, who’s second on the team in scoring, was held scoreless in the first half.
But Jones finished with 12 points in the second half, and his teammates turned their play around, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and holding Connecticut to 36.7 percent in the latter half.
“Simply put, we shot the ball better (in the second half),” McCullum said. “We shot almost 52 percent in the second half, and we got stops. I thought we did a much better job as the game progressed of taking away easy baskets.”
With 19:10 left in the game, junior forward Melvin Buckley – who finished with eight points and six rebounds – made a three-pointer to spark a 24-9 USF run.
Jones scored 10 points during the run, including two consecutive jump shots to get the Bulls within three.
“(Our) guys just coming out and basically leaving it all out on the court (got us back in the game), and that’s what we tried to do,” Jones said of the second-half rally.
Senior guard James Holmes scored a team-high 14 points and Jones tied his season high with six blocked shots as the two seniors spent the game trying to end their college careers on a high note.
“Knowing that this is (Holmes’ and my) second-to-last time being out on that floor in our college careers, we just didn’t want to go out (in a blowout),” Jones said. “Just because they’re a good team, just because they’re UConn, we just didn’t want to give up to them.”
The Sun Dome, which averages 3,547 fans per game, erupted when Jones made a jump shot to get the score to 45-42.
“That’s what we talked about, for the fans still being here and supporting us,” Holmes said. “So we wanted to come out and play and felt that they deserved to see a good game.”
With Florida State upsetting No. 1 Duke 79-74 on Wednesday night, Connecticut, which won the national championship in 2004, is likely to move back into the No. 1 spot, and McCullum has no problem with that.
“Obviously they have so many weapons that can come at you in so many different ways: depth, experience (and) size,” McCullum said. “I think they’re the best team in the country, and I think they’ll win it all. I hope they win it all.”