On a night when the South Florida student section celebrated a “pajama party” theme at the Sun Dome, the Bulls awakened from a second-half slumber and escaped with a 70-61 victory over DePaul on Tuesday after blowing a 12-point first-half lead.
“We’ve been so close (to winning) in a lot of games and the talent gap in the Big East is large, but we’re still putting ourselves in positions to win,” said USF coach Stan Heath. “It was good to see us go out there and finish.”
As he has all season, sophomore guard Dominique Jones made the difference for USF in front of a crowd of 3,323.
Jones fell short of a triple-double but finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. The last Bull to record a triple-double was McHugh Mattis on Dec. 7, 2006.
“It’s tough to beat a team twice in one season, so our main focus was to go out there and take it to them,” Jones said. “We let them back into the game, but we were able to maintain and keep pushing to pull out the win.”
USF, trailing 56-54 with less than seven minutes to play, got a spark from freshman forward Augustus Gilchrist — who went on a 6-0 run on his own.
“I thought that was a key play,” Heath said. “We weren’t getting much offense, but those back-to-back plays really helped.”
USF (7-11, 2-4) shot 41.4 percent from the field and used rebounding to frustrate the Blue Demons. The Bulls outmanned DePaul on the glass by a 48-28 margin.
“I thought USF did a good job rebounding,” said DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright.
Led by Jones’ 14 first-half points, USF jumped out to a 17-11 lead. However, DePaul (8-11, 0-6) battled back to take a 22-21 advantage — in one of the game’s 11 lead changes — just minutes later.
The game was in stark contrast to the teams’ last meeting Jan. 10, when USF defeated DePaul 80-58.
The Bulls were without senior guard Jesus Verdejo, who sat out because of a concussion suffered in Saturday’s 62-59 loss to West Virginia.
Heath used freshmen B.J. Daniels, Gaby Belardo and Justin Leemow to fill Verdejo’s role at point guard. The three combined scored six points.
“Not having (Verdejo), I was kind of scratching my head on how we’d create some offense,” Heath said. “I thought we scrapped and scrapped and fought, though.”
USF, picked by many to finish last in the Big East, is tied with Cincinnati for 11th place. Eight of the conference’s top 10 teams are ranked in the nation’s top 25.
Heath said he’s not worried about records, though.
“We don’t get caught up in what people predict or anything like that,” he said. “We’re just trying to go out there and win as many games as we can.”