Collins free-throws clinch Bulls win

With 3.2 seconds left, true freshman Anthony Collins went to the free-throw line for what he called the biggest attempts of his life, scoring both the game-tying and go-ahead points and carrying the USF men’s basketball team to a thrilling 46-45 win over Cincinnati.

The Bulls (18-11, 11-5) and Bearcats were tied for fifth in the league standings as they met in a crucial showdown at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Sunday, with USF surviving to notch a win for their NCAA Tournament resume and secure a spot on the bubble for their first NCAA Tournament berth in two decades.

Neither team led by more than six points in a tight game. With only 9.5 seconds left in the game, Cincinnati took a one-point lead with a layup by Cashmere Wright.

The Bulls regained possession, but instead of using their final timeout to discuss plans for their pivotal position, coach Stan Heath allowed Collins to run the show.

The young point guard drove the lane and drew the foul that sent him to the line with a chance to win the game. He finished with a game-high 14 points.

“Coach just said if I see an opening, he trusts me, my teammates trust me, they say just go with it,” Collins said. “It felt good. That was the craziest basket of my career. I say that and I’m glad it went in my favor.”

As Cincinnati (20-9, 10-6) inbounded the ball, USF guard Hugh Robertson fouled Dion Dixon, breaking up their offensive play and leaving just 0.7 seconds on the clock.

USF’s Victor Rudd Jr. tipped the ensuing inbounds attempt as the buzzer sounded and the Bulls celebrated a win.

“Well, that was a great win for our program,” Heath said. “I was kind of relaxed and comfortable and my athletics director, Doug Woolard, grabbed me before the game and said, ‘This is the biggest game in our history, you know that?’ And I got really nervous after that.”

Helping the Bulls win was their ever-present defense, which leads the Big East in scoring. The Bearcats shot just 34 percent from the floor and 20 percent from 3-point range, while USF shot 41.3 percent from the floor.

Just before Wright’s go-ahead layup, 47.4 percent free-throw shooter Ron Anderson Jr. made a pair of free throws to set the stage for the dramatic finale.

With the win under their belt, the Bulls find themselves firmly on the bubble for their first NCAA Tournament berth in two decades.

“Before today we were definitely on the outside looking in,” Heath said. “Everybody kept talking about, ‘Well, this is the part of their schedule that’s either going to make or break them.’ The first step, we passed. We still need some wins. I still feel that winning down the stretch is going to be the answer to the questions.”

USF can take another step with a road test against No. 17 Louisville on Wednesday.