USF wins first Big East road game

Rutgers 52, USF 54

Winning a conference game on the road has been a hot topic for the South Florida men’s basketball team all season. Since joining the Big East in 2005, the Bulls have suffered losses in each of the 23 conference road games they have played.

On Saturday night, however, the Bulls (12-17, 3-13) finally came out on top. Despite trailing Rutgers 50-49 with less than two minutes remaining, USF was able to come back and hold on for a season sweep of the Scarlet Knights (10-20, 2-15).

USF coach Stan Heath was relieved after the game.

“It has been (a long time coming). And I know for the fans its been even longer,” Heath said. “We’re proud that we got it. We wish we would have got it sooner. But this was a hard-fought win, and I thought our team grew up quite a bit tonight with this road experience.”

The Bulls started the game shooting very well. They began shooting 7-for-9 from the field, and took a 22-9 lead. USF extended its lead to 16 points with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half.

USF stayed a step ahead of Rutgers for most of the close game. Junior guard Jesus Verdejo was a key contributor for the Bulls.

Verdejo scored 11 of the Bulls’ first 19 points, and finished the game with 16.

“He was huge,” Heath said. “We got off to a great start and that’s what you want to do. You want to go on the road and take the crowd out of the game.”

An 8-2 second-half scoring run by Rutgers cut the Bulls lead to just one point. The Bulls, however, have experience in close games. USF’s last four games were decided by a total of eight points.

“Our defense really came to the forefront tonight,” Heath said. “I challenged our guys because I didn’t think, defensively, we were at the level we needed to be. But I thought we had it tonight. If you play good defense, you can give yourself a chance to win, and that’s what we did.”

USF held onto the lead for the first 38 minutes, but Rutgers’ junior guard Anthony Farmer – who scored a game-high 19 points – gave the Scarlet Knights their first lead with 1:53 remaining in the game.

“We knew they were going to make a run,” Heath said. “It’s their senior night; it’s their last home game this season. We knew they were going to make a big push at us, and we had to do everything we could to hold that off and make some plays down the stretch.”

With the game close, the Bulls trusted their fate to freshman guard Dominique Jones. He scored a team-high 17 points, but none were more important than the two he scored with 37 seconds remaining.

Jones’ running lay-up proved to be the basket that gave USF the Big East road win it had been searching for since joining the conference.

“Dominique is just playing at such a high level for us,” Heath said. “I thought he was the key for us, especially late in the game when they were making a push at us. He was the guy who was able to make big plays. For a freshman at this stage in his career, playing on the road, he’s really grown up and he’s really stepping into that spotlight as the go-to guy.”

The Bulls’ victory also assures that they will not finish at the bottom of the conference for the second consecutive season.

“We were all excited,” Heath said. “We all had a nice little smile on our face, and we’re going to enjoy ourselves tonight. It’s good to see those guys with a smile on their face after a game on the road. It’s been a long time coming.”