Syracuse 78, USF 89
The Bulls’ season-high 10-game losing streak began Jan. 5 with an 89-77 loss to the Syracuse Orange. Thanks to big performances from several starters and clutch free-throw shooting in Wednesday’s game’s final moments, USF was able to end its streak against them.
The Bulls (11-14, 2-10) won 89-78 despite a furious, last-minute charge from the Orange (16-9, 6-6).
After more than a month of losses, USF coach Stan Heath was more excited for his players than he was for himself.
“I am really happy for our players,” Heath said. “It’s good to see them in the locker room, smiling. It’s good to see them enjoying a victory. I want to continue to see them achieve victories, because that’s what we play for.”
The Bulls started the game by giving the Orange a steady dose of senior center Kentrell Gransberry.
Gransberry scored seven of the Bulls’ first 12 points – with freshman guard Dominique Jones scoring the other five. However, Gransberry picked up two quick fouls, and had to go to the bench seven minutes into the game.
“In the past (Gransberry) has picked up two, but he’s never picked up two that early,” Heath said. “I was kind of in this quandary of ‘do I sit him?’ There was just so much time left in that game - I had to get him back out there.”
Gransberry played 30 minutes – just under his season average of 31.1 – and scored 23 points. He also pulled in nine rebounds.
Syracuse took advantage of Gransberry’s trip to the bench. The Orange took a 13-12 lead with just over 14 minutes remaining in the first half.
With the Bulls trailing, Jones and junior guard Jesus Verdejo stepped up and led the Bulls during a 20-1 scoring run that gave them a 32-14 lead. USF took a 38-24 lead into halftime.
A key reason for the early lead was turnovers. The Bulls forced 12 first-half turnovers and scored 23 points off them.
“(Turnovers) were big,” Heath said. “That’s what happened to us when we played them up there: We turned it over, they went in and scored, and we dug a big hole for ourselves.”
USF has led by double-digits in the second half of each of the last four games. In the previous three, the Bulls let the game slip out of reach.
All season Heath has wanted another scoring presence to help Gransberry and Jones. Despite 19 points from Verdejo, this game almost slipped from the Bulls grasp as well.
USF led by as many as 20 points in the second half, and maintained a double-digit lead until just over four minutes remained in the game.
The Orange played a stingy press defense, and hit key shots on the offensive end, eventually cutting the Bulls’ lead to three – 79-76 – with 1:13 left to play.
“What came into my head was ‘not this time,'” Gransberry said. “It happened three times in a row. We just had to learn from our losses and our mistakes. We had to finish this one out, and we did.”
Jones – a true freshman – showed senior poise during the closing minutes of the game. He made five trips to the free-throw line and made all 10 of his attempts during the game’s final 84 seconds.
“We practice free throws all the time,” Jones said. “They put the game in my hands and said ‘make free throws and we win,’ and that’s easy.”
Jones finished with a game-high 29 points – 12 of which he scored from the free-throw line.
Free throws played a large role in the Bulls’ victory – not just from Jones but from the entire team. USF has been shooting just over 63 percent from the free-throw line as a team this season. On Wednesday, the Bulls combined to go 26-of-32 (81 percent) from the line.
Even though USF held on for the victory, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was not too satisfied with the result, and he compared it to the team’s prior meeting.
“I don’t see (USF playing better),” Boeheim said. “I see us playing 190 percent worse.”
Boeheim’s lack of enthusiasm for his team’s performance was not meant to be a smear on USF’s victory, however.
“South Florida is not a bad team,” Boeheim said. “They’re in the Big East. Whether they’ve lost 10 straight games or not, they’re not a bad team.”
The victory was a small victory for the Bulls. Their chances to make the Big East Tournament remain nearly impossible, but the win was a relief to the players.
“This feels really good,” Verdejo said. “We’ve just got to stay focused and get ready for (Connecticut) on Saturday.”