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Staying alive: USF tops fellow bubble foe Cincy

Oh, there’s no place like home for the Bulls.

After losing two straight road games, USF, still in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid, bounced back Tuesday night and picked up a key 65-57 conference win in the Sun Dome against Cincinnati with solid defense and 26 points from junior guard Dominique Jones.

It was USF’s fourth straight Big East victory at home.

“It’s big,” said USF coach Stan Heath, whose team has a chance to get back to .500 in the conference when USF hosts St. John’s on Saturday. “I thought the crowd was huge for us tonight. It gave us an extra jolt of energy and helped us sustain the level we wanted to play at tonight.”

Behind a season-high 6,607 people at the Sun Dome, the Bulls (16-9, 6-7) had their “best defensive effort of the year,” Heath said.

USF held Cincinnati to just 39 percent shooting and forced 16 turnovers. Guard Lance Stephenson, the Bearcats’ leading scorer at 12 points per game, had four on 1-of-5 shooting, while forward Yancy Gates, who entered averaging 10.3 points per game, was held to three. Three Bulls had two steals.

“From the start of the game, we had a defensive mindset,” said senior guard Mike Mercer, who had 12 points. “We noticed in the first game against them they couldn’t handle the pressure – sometimes they would turn it over.”

USF scored the first nine points in the second half and led 47-29 after a 23-6 run keyed by Jones, who scored 19 of his 26 points in the second half. The Bearcats didn’t hit the 30-point mark until nine minutes remained in the game.

Sophomore Augustus Gilchrist played his first home game since Dec. 2 and had 10 points in 35 minutes. Jones, who struggled from the field in the last two games, hit seven of his 12 field goal attempts and was 10-of-12 from the free-throw line.

“Very few guys in the college game can score from the 3-point line, off the dribble and get all the way to the rim. He does all three,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said of Jones, who added two blocks and two steals. “You get 26 (points) on 12 shots – that’s pretty impressive.”

Jones said he fed off the record crowd – something he hasn’t seen in a while.

“I’ve been here for two years, and sometimes you’ll play a team and the only people you’ll see in the stands is family,” he said. “This is a big step for the program, for our fans … Coming to fill up the stands plays a major part in us winning.”

With the win over another team in the hunt for an NCAA tournament spot, the Bulls’ resume gets a boost. USF now moves into a three-way tie with Notre Dame and Cincinnati for eighth in the Big East standings. Each team has a 6-7 record in the conference.

“It was a big win,” Heath said. “It was one of those pressure-cooker games for both teams. We feel very fortunate we were able to pull it out.”