After his team’s 68-60 win over Southern Miss on Friday night — a win that gave the Bulls their first Conference USA win of the season after nine straight losses — USF men’s basketball coach Robert McCullum said USF kept alive hopes for a conference tournament berth.
“It really puts us back into the thick of things in terms of competing to make the Conference USA tournament,” McCullum said. “There is still one other team with one conference win and maybe a couple of others with two, so it was a big win for that reason.”
East Carolina is the only other team with one win, while Tulane and Houston both sit at two victories. All but the two lowest teams in the conference standings qualify for the tournament.
USF avoided losing 10 straight games for the first time in nearly 20 years with the victory and did it without leading scorer and rebounder Terrence Leather, who sat out the game for what McCullum called academic issues.
“It’s simple: If you don’t go to class, you don’t play,” McCullum said of Leather.
But, McCullum added, playing without a key player made the victory even more enjoyable. USF was already an underdog going into the game, and Leather’s absence made it even more impressive, he said.
“It always feels great when you win. There is something to be said when you’re expected to win, but for me there is no greater feeling than winning against the odds. If you do it against the odds it feels even better,” McCullum said.
With Leather on the bench, USF turned to the backcourt tandem of Bradley Mosley and Brian Swift, who combined to outscore the Southern Miss starting guards 43-3.
“With Terrence Leather being out, Brian Swift said me and him would have to have a good game,” said Mosley, who led the Bulls with a career-high 30 points on 10 of 22 shooting. “I knew I would have to be more aggressive.”
Swift, who made 3 of 5 three-point shots and finished with 13 points to go with a game-high eight assists, said the team is confident it can make the tournament, and that he and Mosley are as good as any pair of guards in the conference.
“We feel like we can compete with any two guards in the conference,” Swift said. “Bradley did a great job shooting the ball real well. I’m getting him the ball, he’s getting me the ball … we just had to step it up, and we did.”
Gerrick Morris had his second nine-block performance in three games for the Bulls. Morris also finished with 10 rebounds, eight points and three steals. The performance moved Morris into second on the C-USA career-blocks list.
“Right before the Houston game, Gerrick showed up with his hair cut lower, or different than usual,” McCullum said. “I don’t know if it’s the haircut, but the last five or six games there’s been a difference about him. He’s had a spark about him. He’s practiced better, he’s had more enthusiasm.
“Maybe he senses that his college career is coming to an end. We talked about that a little bit before the game, that there are just seven more games that you guys are all going to sit in the locker room together. Before you know it, it’s going to be one. I think maybe that has finally registered with him. But what’s really important is that he really seems like he’s having fun.”
With just seven players playing in the game, Morris, Swift and Mosley had to play all 40 minutes while freshman Konimba Diarra and walk-ons Brian Graham and Brandyn Flowers got significant playing time. Graham scored six points in 26 minutes of action for the Bulls, while Flowers and Diarra combined for seven points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes. USF faced foul trouble as a result, however, with forwards Brandon Brigman and Diarra fouling out and Graham finishing with four fouls.
USF never trailed after falling behind 3-2 in the opening minutes. Southern Miss pulled within two at halftime after the Bulls led by as many as 11 in the first half. A 12-0 run by USF around the midpoint of the second half, however, put the game away.
Southern Miss would pull within six with 35 seconds remaining after making three three-pointers in the final 90 seconds, but could not overcome a 16-point USF lead.
USF (7-14, 1-9) travels to Charlotte on Wednesday to open a stretch that will send the Bulls on the road for three of their next four games. Two of those games, Houston on Saturday and at East Carolina on Feb. 28, could determine the postseason fate of USF.