The USF men’s basketball team blew a 13-point second-half lead but managed to stave off a game Northern Illinois team 79-74 Tuesday in DeKalb, Ill.
“I’m glad we got out of here with a win,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “Obviously that wasn’t our best basketball.”
The Huskies’ P.J. Smith twice had chances to tie the game in the final 30 seconds with three-pointers, but was unable to connect. Reggie Kohn’s pair of free throws with one second remaining finally sealed the win, improving the Bulls to 7-0, the best start in school history.
“(Northern Illinois) played magnificently,” Greenberg said. “They made their threes and they made big, big shots.”
The Bulls came into the game with the nation’s best three-point percentage, but were only able to connect on 3-of-16 from long range, while the Huskies countered with 9-of-25 from beyond the arc. In addition to the troubles from three-point range, the Bulls turned the ball over 15 times compared to the Huskies 11.
“We didn’t have our legs and we didn’t guard the basketball very well,” Greenberg said.
Will McDonald poured in a career high 28 points and grabbed seven rebounds, utilizing his size and strength against a small Huskie lineup. None of Northern Illinois’ starters were taller than 6-foot-6, while only Kohn, the Bulls’ point guard, measured less than the tallest Huskie.
“Coach would play a small lineup last year against smaller lineups, so when I saw I was starting, my eyes got big from the beginning,” McDonald said. “I knew I could take advantage of that.”
McDonald took advantage early and often, scoring 12 of the Bulls’ first 14 points. With USF trailing 7-4 early, the 6-11 center reeled off 10 straight points to put USF up by 7. Greenberg said keeping it simple against the smaller Huskies was the key to McDonald’s success.
“He was keeping the ball high and sealing off his man to get good angles,” he said. “When Will gets tricky, that’s when he struggles. But if he keeps the ball high, he can make shots.”
McDonald said that after USF’s big 79-59 win against California last weekend and with the Florida showdown Saturday, the Bulls were looking past Northern Illinois in the beginning of the game.
“We started off taking them lightly and it almost cost us the game,” McDonald said. “But we came away with the plays.”
Al Sewasciuk’s three at the buzzer cut the USF lead to 40-37 before halftime, but the Bulls came out strong after the intermission and built a 13-point lead midway through the second half. But Northern Illinois refused to go away and gradually whittled the Bulls’ lead to 75-73 on a dunk from Marcus Smallwood with 30 seconds to play.
Kohn then hit 1-of-2 free throws, but Smith couldn’t connect on the first of his two huge misses. Leon Rodgers eventually corralled the ball and was fouled by Kohn, but only hit 1-of-2 free throws to cut the deficit to 76-74 with 10 seconds remaining. Kohn sunk 1-of-2 from the line again, but Smith’s three-pointer to tie rattled out and the Bulls escaped.
“It was the type of game I expected,” Greenberg said. “It was a tough game in a hostile environment and sandwiched between two tough games (Cal and Florida).”
B.B. Waldon finished with 18 points and eight rebounds while Altron Jackson added 12 and seven boards.
- Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org