The Tampa Bay Times Forum continued to be a benevolent temporary host for USF on Wednesday night as the Bulls earned their 12th home victory of the season, defeating the streaking Pittsburgh Panthers (15-10, 4-8) 63-51.
After a dominating defensive start, in which the Bulls kept the Panthers scoreless for the first five minutes and 35 seconds of the game, Hugh Robertson got their offense going, raking in a season-high 18 points on perfect 7-of-7 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line for the night.
“It’s somewhat confidence,” Robertson said of his recent success. “But it’s just mostly being more assertive. I’m really starting to look to score.”
The Panthers are on a roller coaster this year, after a successful run last season that saw them earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
After starting 0-for-7 in Big East conference play, the Panthers were on a four-game winning streak before they were halted by the Bulls.
“Our guys love playing in front of their friends, family, boosters, alumni, just people that show them love, and that’s what they feed off of,” coach Stan Heath said.
USF’s only loss this season at home was Dec. 28 to UConn in their Big East opener. The Huskies were ranked No. 9 at the time of that game.
The loss leaves Pitt on the brink of missing the postseason after being a top seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“Pittsburgh was on a roll,” senior forward Augustus Gilchrist said. “They had won four straight. (Pittsburgh guard Tray) Woodall was playing great coming into the game, but the defense was really strong. It was a big win for us.”
The Panthers were done in by uncharacteristically poor shooting, as they shot just 34.6 percent from the field. The defensive performance from the Bulls, however, was not uncharacteristic, as the Bulls are second in the Big East in opponent points per game, allowing 59.7 points per game.
“I think the bulk of our team is our defense, that’s the pride of this team,” Robertson said. “I’m not focused on my points. It was more important for us to play well on defense. My job is defense.”
The Bulls also managed to out rebound Pittsburgh, who was 30th in the nation with 38.5 rebounds per game, by a 30 to 27 margin. The Panthers also led the Big East in rebounding margin, with a margin of +9.4 rebounds per game.
“We felt that rebounding was the main key of the game. We had to keep them off the boards,” Heath said. “You know, rebounding is an effort area. We’ve been a good rebounding team. They’ve been a step above, but tonight I think we were able to at least play at their level.”
USF will now travel to Providence to take on the Friars on Saturday at 4 p.m., followed by a return to the Forum for a rematch with Villanova on Feb. 15.