Having lost its first seven games of conference play, losing has been nothing new for USF, but Saturday night’s 71-69 loss to UCF in front of a season-high Sun Dome crowd was different.
It wasn’t the typical thumping USF had received in its past three games, where it lost by an average of 33 points. The Bulls had this game in their control, leading for 29 minutes, 15 of which were in the second half.
The Knights (13-6, 4-3) were without three of their usual starters, but still had enough firepower to down the Bulls (7-13, 0-7) for the fifth consecutive time behind point guard B.J. Taylor’s 16 second half points.
“Taylor took over that game at the end and that’s what upper-class guards are supposed to do,” USF coach Brian Gregory said. “The team we prepared for the last two days isn’t the team we faced and that’s a challenge.”
The Knights took their first lead of the second half after a steal turned into a fast-break layup for Taylor, who was also fouled on the play and made the ensuing free throw, giving the Knights a two-point advantage with less than three minutes to play.
After Bulls’ winger Payton Banks caught a pass with his foot out of bounds on the Bulls next possession, Taylor capitalized and hit a three-pointer from the top of the key, with the shot clock at one, USF forward Malik Martin in his face and exactly two minutes left on the clock. The Bulls would finish the game shooting four-of-five from the field, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit.
“Credit to the guy,” point guard Stephan Jiggetts said about Taylor. “He just made a play.”
As Taylor’s shot fell through the net, a majority of the 4,611 fans in attendance fell silent. Others put their hands on top of their heads, sighing in unison.
The last time UCF traveled to the Sun Dome on March 2 it trailed the Bulls for over 28 minutes, taking its first lead of the second half with 1:37 left to play and eventually won 59-56. How’d the Knights take the lead then? A three-pointer from Taylor.
Despite the heartbreaking defeat, Gregory was pleased with the atmosphere in the Sun Dome and how his players performed, especially in the first half where the Bulls ended the period up 36-29.
“Great environment here tonight,” Gregory said. “Hopefully it was just kind of a glimpse into what we can get to. Defensively in the first half, I thought we were really good and active on the glass and we shared the ball really well. We had the lead at halftime. We have to continue to defend with the toughness that we showed then.”
Jiggetts, a graduate-transfer, led the Bulls in scoring with 21 points, while freshman point guard David Collins scored 14 points and recorded five assists in his first ever collegiate start. As USF will lose three of its starting five after this season, Gregory views Collins as the future for the program for years to come.
“His (Collins) aggressiveness, his assertiveness as a player, he’s a gritty player and before it’s all said and done, we’re going to win a lot of games with him playing and he’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing,” Gregory said. “I see a little bit of B.J. Taylor in David Collins. Tough, physical guard who can shoot the ball well enough to keep you honest, but can get to the basket.”
While Collins and freshman guard Justin Brown are in Gregory’s long-term plans, red-shirt sophomore Tulio Da Silva no longer will be, as he was released by the team on Saturday.
Before his release, Da Silva was averaging eight points per game, which was third best on the team and averaged a team-high 5.6 rebounds per game.
“It’s not for everyone,” Gregory said. “We’re not a back-pocket program and we’re going to bring in guys that want to be here and are a great fit. I think that attitude has to resonate.”
The Bulls will return to action Thursday when they travel to face Tulane (12-7, 3-4) at 9 p.m.