USF 51, Cincinnati 52
Following Saturday’s one-point overtime loss to Connecticut, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun believed the USF men’s basketball team had “turned the corner.”
Wednesday’s game against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, however, saw the Bulls fail to build upon the momentum of Saturday’s near-upset – and the Bulls remain winless on the road in the Big East.
Trailing by one with 37 seconds remaining, the Bulls (11-16, 2-12) had three possessions to win their first Big East road game in school history.
After a turnover, two missed layups and a missed jump shot that would have won the game, USF had to look up at the scoreboard and feel the sting of its second straight one-point loss – a 52-51 defeat at the hands of the Bearcats (13-12, 8-5).
“We just keep plugging along,” USF coach Stan Heath said. “I think, as we keep fighting and fighting, some good things will happen for us. But that’s all we can do.”
The Bulls had several chances to walk out of Fifth Third Arena with a win. Senior center Kentrell Gransberry – who is shooting 53 percent from the free-throw line this season – made two free throws with just 37 seconds left in the game to cut the Bearcats’ lead to one.
“Those were huge. I give him a lot of credit for stepping up in that situation,” Heath said. “Those were big, big free throws at that particular time.”
On the ensuing inbound pass, Cincinnati senior forward Marcus Sikes threw the ball out of bounds, giving USF the ball under its own basket. The Bulls squandered the opportunity.
Freshman guard Dominique Jones stepped out of bounds with 12.9 seconds left, and the Bulls were left in a scramble.
“I’d like to see what happened on film,” Heath said. “You don’t normally just walk out of bounds by yourself.”
After regaining possession, the Bulls missed two layups. Jones got the ball with 2.9 seconds left, but failed to win the game in regulation for the second game in a row.
“We had maybe five opportunities to win the game,” Heath said. “We just came up empty-handed.”
The game was a defensive struggle from the opening tip-off, with neither team being able to build a sizeable advantage.
Early in the first half, USF jumped out to a seven-point lead. While the Bulls were building the lead, they held the Bearcats scoreless for more than four minutes. The Bearcats, however, ended the first half on a 9-3 run and took a 27-24 lead into the break.
For the fourth straight game, USF got solid production out of junior forward Jesus Verdejo. He led the Bulls with a team-high 19 points – one point shy of his career high.
“(Verdejo) is shooting the ball really well, and he’s doing a good job of getting out in transition,” Heath said. “Again, he hit a money three for us that put us within one and really put us in a position to maybe pull this one off.”
Gransberry had an uncharacteristic performance. He shot just 2-of-10 from the field, and scored only seven points. He did contribute in other ways, however. Gransberry pulled down a game-high 18 rebounds.
“Don’t think I leave here thinking (Gransberry) didn’t help us,” Heath said. “Eighteen rebounds. That’s a huge performance right there. I thought tonight was one of those days where he got a little frustrated.”
The Bearcats got a big performance out of sophomore guard Deonta Vaughn. He shot 7-of-15 from the field and scored a game-high 21 points. It was the eighth time this season Vaughn scored at least 20 points.
The Bulls will have to wait five days before they take the court again. Heath said he thinks the time off will be a benefit to his team.
“I think mentally it might be (a good time for a break),” Heath said. “We just played two games that just hung in the balance and could have gone our way. We’re playing really well, but we need to play a little better.”
Despite the back-to-back, last-second losses, Heath believes the Bulls still have a lot of momentum going into the final four games of the season.
“Some better days are ahead of us,” Heath said. “These are definitely experiences that our guys are going through, and it’s going to make us stronger. It’s going to make us tougher, and our fans are going to enjoy some wins down the road.”