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No. 1 Connecticut outlasts USF

It didn’t begin well for the South Florida men’s basketball team, but that didn’t stop the Bulls from giving Connecticut some trouble Saturday.

Despite a dysfunctional offensive start, USF grinded with tough defense but eventually fell to the top-ranked Huskies 64-50 at the XL Center, giving the Bulls their fourth-straight defeat.

“I’m never happy with a loss, but how well you play has more of an effect on you, and defensively I thought we did a terrific job,” said USF coach Stan Heath. “I thought we got back well and we hustled in transition. We even battled with them on the boards.”

It was offense, however, that hurt the Bulls.

USF didn’t score until the 14:11 mark, which resulted in an early 9-0 deficit, and finished 29 percent from the field and 1-for-11 from the three-point line in the first half.

“The way we played, we had a legitimate chance to pull off an upset, if we did one thing — we had to hit three-point shots,” Heath said. “The area around the basket was just not available for us, and we had to do everything we could to make our shots.”

UConn’s 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, helping the Huskies to a slim 44-40 rebounding margin for the game.

Despite the slow start, the Bulls trailed Connecticut 46-40 after sophomore guard Dominique Jones cut the lead with a dunk at 11:50 in the second half. However, a three-point shot by UConn senior guard A.J. Price and a 9-0 Huskies run put the game out of reach.

USF junior guard Chris Howard, who had 11 points and eight assists, said playing well against the Huskies will encourage the team.

“We definitely feel like this can give us confidence in the future — despite losing — as we approach the end of the schedule,” he said. “It’s kind of a catch-22 sort of thing.”

Jones finished with 14 points — leaving him just short of the 1,000 career point mark at 999.

USF was without senior guard Jesus Verdejo, who sat out with a right ankle injury. Heath used freshmen Gaby Belardo and Justin Leemow, and junior walk-on Ryan Kardok to try and take his place. Leemow played 34 minutes.

“I think a guy like Leemow has grown to where we don’t even consider him freshman anymore,” Howard said. “At the same time, it’s tough not having Jesus (Verdejo), but I think it’s great that he got to play a lot and is gaining more experience.”

USF finished 32 percent from the field and only had three free-throw attempts in the game. Heath said the Bulls’ shooting performance was disappointing.

“It’s just one of those games where you have to make shots against a team like UConn,” he said. “There’s no way to sugar coat it because you have to hit them when they give them to you.”