A winning feeling

USF 62 Rutgers 40

Melvyn Richardson walked off the court and received a handshake and a smile from coach Robert McCullum. There was only 2:33 left in the first half – that’s the kind of night it was for USF.

The Bulls, who have five double-digit losses in conference play, started the night tied with Rutgers for last place in the Big East. However, USF’s role of being the team blown out was reversed Wednesday as it dominated the Scarlet Knights in a 62-40 win at the Sun Dome. Now USF (11-10, 2-5) is in 14th place, two spots out of a conference tournament bid.

The Bulls controlled the entire game, holding Rutgers (8-12, 1-6) to just 16 field goals and jumping out to an 11-point lead midway through the first half. Rutgers never came within double-digits after that point.

“It’s a great feeling – one that I hope to get used to,” McCullum said. “I’d love to get in the situation where we’re playing with a double-digit lead that early in the game and for that long.”

USF stole all momentum in the first half as it shot 62.5 percent from the field compared to the Scarlet Knights, who made just 23.3 percent of their field goals. At the break, the Bulls had a commanding 38-18 lead.

Forward Melvin Buckley and guard Chris Howard said McCullum always goes into the locker room at halftime stressing the importance of winning the first five minutes of the second half. They said Wednesday was no different, but McCullum said he added a few words.

“The first thing we said (at halftime) was (we) commended them for how well they played,” McCullum said. “I told them that was the best half of basketball that we’ve played. And I think this may be the best game we’ve played.”

Guard Jesus Verdejo, who was benched in USF’s win against Cincinnati on Jan. 14, made his first start in four games. Verdejo scored seven of the Bulls’ first 14 points, finishing with 10.

“If Jesus can continue to play that way, it’s going to be a big plus for us,” McCullum said. “It’s going to give us a chance to beat someone that we’re not supposed to, and that’s what we have to do – beat someone that, on paper, we’re not supposed to beat.”

Along with Verdejo’s offensive performance, three other Bulls reached double figures – Kentrell Gransberry (13), Buckley (11) and Howard (10). McCullum said having several players contribute offensively helps keep teams from keying in on Buckley.

“We’ve got guys that can come in and get us 10, 11, 12 points, and that’s what’s going to make us better,” Buckley said. “I can rest, (but) I can knock down shots when I have to, and when we need a bucket I can get it for us.”

USF’s next two games are at home against No. 15 Marquette (Sunday) and No. 22 Notre Dame (Feb. 3). The mindset of the players and coaches this week has been to win at least two of three during the homestand to stay in contention for a berth in the Big East Tournament. With two ranked teams coming in, beating a struggling Rutgers team was a good place to start.

“It was very important to get the first one, to give us motivation going against a ranked opponent like Marquette,” Howard said. “I feel if we would’ve lost this game tonight, it would’ve been even a harder task to come to a game Sunday against a ranked opponent.”