Coach Brian Gregory said Tuesday the Bulls didn’t play complete, 40-minute games in their two losses last week.
It’s debatable if they did Wednesday night against East Carolina (11-18, 5-11) at the Yuengling Center, but it was more than enough to put up a 73-68 overtime win.
“It’s funny. There were stretches where we played better in both those games than we did today,” Gregory said. “There was a couple of things today — we make some hustle plays and get some loose balls and falling out of bounds or kick it out and they get it. I was sitting there saying, ‘Can we catch a break right now?’”
Perhaps the time USF (12-15, 5-10) needed one of those breaks the most was midway through the first half. A 1-of-8 stretch from the field turned what was a 14-11 USF lead into a 25-16 ECU lead.
Gregory called timeout, and after the ensuing break, the Bulls went on a 14-4 run, cutting the deficit to one.
“Basically, [Gregory said] we just had to pick up the intensity,” junior guard Justin Brown said, “play harder on the defensive end. Don’t let our shots on offense show themselves on defense. If we miss a shot on offense, we can’t go back down and have a bad defensive possession. He just kept engraving that in our mind.
“We know what we can do, we know what we’re capable of. We’ve had a lost season so far and we just keep pushing. We don’t quit.”
Prior to the timeout, USF was shooting 27 percent (6-of-22). The Bulls finished the half 4-of-10 and 23-of-61 (38 percent) for the game.
Ultimately, the teams traded blows: There were 10 lead changes, with neither team leading for more than 20 minutes. But ECU started to pull away toward the end of regulation, leading by as many as seven with under six minutes to play.
But the Bulls did what they weren’t able to do last week against Wichita State and UConn and kept up with the Pirates. USF went on a 9-2 run, tying the game at 57.
“Out of the 80 minutes last week, the only time I think we didn’t play good against Wichita State was the last five minutes,” Gregory said. “Against UConn, probably the last seven minutes. … We got the same looks in overtime that we did previous, in regulation, in overtime. … We’ve just got to keep producing good shots and just got to keep believing that they’re going to go in.”
USF also effectively shut down ECU’s leading scorer in the first half. Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner, who finished with a game-high 19 points, only scored four during the first 20 minutes.
“The one thing that we were able to do, we turned him into more of a perimeter player,” Gregory said. “And because he was on the perimeter, he didn’t get any offensive rebounds. And he’s good enough, he’s still going to get 19 on you, but we forced him into 15 shots and we forced him into three turnovers. … But he’s going to get 20, we just had to make him work.”
Most notably, the Bulls were 4-of-25 in regulation from 3-point range, but shot 3-of-5 during overtime, including what ultimately proved to be the game-winner from Brown with just over 2:30 remaining. Sophomore guard Xavier Castaneda and senior guard Laquincy Rideau also hit 3s, with Rideau’s icing the game with 18 seconds left.
Ultimately, despite the poor shooting in the first half, four Bulls finished in double figures: Brown (18), sophomore forward Michael Durr (15), Rideau (14), and junior guard David Collins (11). Brown also had four of the Bulls’ seven 3-pointers.
Gregory is hopeful the shots that fell late in the game and in overtime can buy the Bulls some momentum.
“Hopefully it builds a little confidence,” Gregory said. “In the UConn game (on Sunday), our offensive efficiency was off the chart. … So I didn’t expect to come in here at home and not shoot as well.”