The USF men’s basketball team got some unlikely help to pull off an unlikely win Tuesday night.
With key players battered with injuries, and trailing by as many as seven points in the second half, the Bulls used a late run to pull off a 70-59 victory over Cincinnati on Senior Night at the Sun Dome in front of a crowd of 4,068.
The Bulls (9-20, 4-13) were without senior guard Jesus Verdejo, who was out with plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis in his right foot, but pulled off a program-record four Big East conference wins. USF has finished with three conference wins in the past two seasons.
“This is all about making progress and trying to get to another level. You never want to take steps backward,” said USF coach Stan Heath. “We went through a lot this year. Not only did we have to deal with a lot of injuries, but we got more wins.”
Trailing in the second half, freshman guard Justin Leemow knocked down three crucial three-pointers to keep the Bulls in contention, and USF finished the game on a 21-9 run.
“Cincinnati started to play some zone on us, and when I was able to hit those shots it really opened up the defense,” Leemow said. “It forced them to switch to man, and then some of our other guys could take over.”
The 6-foot-1 Brooklyn native was 0-for-20 in the past seven games and hadn’t scored a point since Feb. 6.
Leemow said the win did a lot for the team’s confidence.
“For a while, we weren’t able to finish games and put things together to win,” he said. “Tonight, we came out in the second half well after struggling in the first half. People started to not believe in us this season, but we believed in ourselves.”
Cincinnati sophomore forward Darnell Wilks helped the Bearcats (18-12, 8-9) to an early 15-10 lead, going perfect from the field en route to seven first-half points, and UC took a 29-24 lead into halftime.
“Early in the first half, we had a chance to get a sizeable lead and we failed to execute on the offensive end,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin.
After nailing a three-point shot at the 7:31 mark, sophomore guard Dominique Jones moved to No. 14 on USF’s all-time leading scorer list. Jones finished with 30 points for 1,067 in his career. Jones said the Bulls need to carry their success further this season.
“This gives us a lot of confidence — a momentum-builder — and I think we need that as a team,” he said. “If we go into games with confidence and we play as a team, we have a chance to beat other good teams.”
USF shot 46 percent from the field and hit 15-of-20 free throws for its highest point total since a 70-61 victory over DePaul on Jan. 20, snapping a six-game losing streak.
Verdejo and forwards Aris Williams and B.J. Ajayi finished their home careers Tuesday night. Heath said he was appreciative of their work at USF.
“I want Senior Night to be a tradition every year — to recognize them, plain and simple,” he said. “This is a night to recognize how hard they’ve played, and how fun it was to be here with them.”