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USF stymies Villanova

This is no ordinary defense. The Bulls have the best defense in the Big East, and they’re proving it with each game they play.

USF allowed just 51 points Wednesday night, their third-lowest points allowed in conference play this season, in a 65-51 victory over the struggling Villanova Wildcats, whom the Bulls beat by 17 on the road earlier this season. And this time, the Bulls had their vaunted home court advantage.

“There’s no secret we play better in Tampa than when we go somewhere else,” coach Stan Heath said. “I’ve said this before: It’s playing in front of people who cheer for you, family and friends – it’s who we’re playing in front of that gives us this energy.”

Playing in the Tampa Bay Times Forum ignited the Bulls once again, as they improved their home record to 13-1, which is tied for second best in the Big East. But home victories are not the only conference statistic that the Bulls are excelling in this season.

The Bulls are tied for best in the Big East, allowing just 58.6 points per game on the season, and Wednesday’s game was one of their best. They held the Wildcats to just 30.2 percent shooting in the game, and forced them into 14 turnovers.

“I love how they play (on defense),” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I know (Hugh) Robertson gets a lot of credit. They really function as a unit really well, and they are one of the best defensive teams we’ve played.”

After a back-and-forth defensive game for the entire first half, both teams went into the locker room with just 20 points apiece. As it turned out, the game’s pace was altered by the men dressed in black-and-white stripes.

After Anthony Collins dove for a key steal, he passed it to a streaking Hugh Robertson, who finished and hit the deck hard, and Villanova was called for a flagrant foul, meaning the Bulls were awarded two free throws and possession of the basketball. They took full advantage, scoring six points on one possession.

That spurt was followed by Collins shooting four free throws after Wright was called for a technical foul. Collins made all four, and the Bulls ended up with 10 points in two possessions, half of their total from the first 20 minutes of play. The Bulls didn’t look back after that, scoring 45 points in the second half.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, being able to get a bit of a lead,” Heath said. “But those were some energy-type plays, and then Collins fired them up, when he got up to dunk. I didn’t know the guy could touch the net, but he got up there.”

USF was led by 14 points from Hugh Robertson, the second straight home game in which the defensive-minded forward led the Bulls in scoring, tied with Victor Rudd Jr. Ron Anderson Jr. dominated the boards with seven first-half rebounds on his way to 10 rebounds in the game.

“I’m just coming out and being aggressive,” Robertson said. “Coach always says that when I’m aggressive great things happen, and I think it’s just important for me to be a threat.”

Two games after USF managed to out-rebound the team leading the Big East in rebounding margin, they once again topped a great rebounding team, out-rebounding the Wildcats, who are the top rebounding team in the Big East and sit at seventh in the nation in overall rebounding, 33 to 30.

“We have been a good rebounding team, but they have, too, all year,” Wright said. “I think the first half we did a great job, but in the second half we let them open up the floor, which is when their size gives you trouble, that’s why we didn’t want to open up the floor for them, mainly for rebounding.”

USF will now go on the road for two straight games – first for a rematch with the Pittsburgh Panthers, then to the home of the second ranked team in the nation, Syracuse, which is undefeated on its home floor. They will return home Feb. 26 to take on Cincinnati.