Bulls drop third straight

For Chris Howard, it was a chance to play in his first college game, but the Bulls hoped Wednesday’s game against Louisville would be another first.

USF (9-8, 0-3) is still looking for its first conference win of the season, but for the third straight time, the Bulls came up short by double digits – this time an 81-55 loss to the Cardinals (11-5, 1-1).

Louisville went into halftime with a 27-19 lead, and USF managed to come within four points of the Cardinals early in the second half, but a 14-5 run resulted in a loss of any momentum the Bulls had.

“I thought we had them right where we wanted them,” said center Kentrell Gransberry, who scored a team-high 19 points. “We fought back with a three from Melvin Buckley, and they just did a great job at executing what they wanted to do.”

The Cardinals led 30-26 about four minutes into the second half, but after a McHugh Mattis foul, Louisville went on to score several three-pointers, hitting eight field goals from beyond the arc in the second half and 13 three-pointers on the game.

“We’re defending the three terrible,” Howard said. “Guys are hitting too many three’s on us, so that’s something we really stressed before the game.”

Coach Robert McCullum was frustrated after the loss with the Cardinals’ 43.3 field-goal percentage from three-point range, especially after USF practiced its three-point defense more than usual this week.

“I don’t know how we could’ve put more emphasis on defending the three the last two days in practice,” McCullum said. “So it’s extremely disappointing.”

Riding a three-game losing streak, McCullum was still able to find a positive in the loss. Howard, one of the team’s top prospects, has suffered two anterior cruciate ligament injuries since coming to USF in 2005.

After being cleared by his doctor in Gainesville just hours before tip-off, Howard, a 6-foot-3 point guard, came off the bench for 20 minutes, and although he didn’t score any points, McCullum is glad to have him healthy.

“You have to be happy for him – so happy for him to the degree that you almost don’t worry or give too much thought to how well he played,” McCullum said. “But from a basketball standpoint, it was easy for us to see what he can give you.”

Howard said his legs were fatigued by the end of the game, but he pointed out that he spent about six hours in the car while traveling to and from Gainesville to get clearance from his doctor.

“It’s been extremely hard coming from two ACLs, not playing in two and a half to three years,” Howard said. “I’m playing now, so there’s no more excuses.

“It’s something I’ve been waiting for, and it finally came, but it’s behind me now. I just have to get in there and watch film and correct the mistakes that I made.”

Although Howard is finally able to play, USF’s injuries haven’t stopped coming. Guard Chris Capko (ankle) and forward Aris Williams (both knees) are both out for an undetermined amount of time, leaving the Bulls low on healthy bench players.

In its last three games, USF’s bench has been outscored 66-4. The result in Wednesday’s loss was a 16-2 Cardinal advantage.

“You certainly can say it’s been a factor,” McCullum said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever felt like we had a bench that we could go to and get 20 or 30 points a game, but when you look at some of the guys that gave us contributions off the bench earlier, they’re not playing right now, and that means you’re going deeper onto your bench.”

Although it was the first home conference game this season, the Bulls’ hopes of making the Big East Tournament in March are quickly fading, and McCullum feels a turnaround against Cincinnati on Sunday is crucial.

“For all practical purposes from where we sit, I think the game against Cincinnati literally becomes a must-win,” McCullum said. “And you hate to have to say that so early in the season with 13 games left to play.”