With 4:26 left in the first half, the Sun Dome erupted as senior forward Victor Rudd electrified the 4,605 attending fans Saturday night. With a quick steal followed by a posterizing slam over 6-foot-7 freshman Junior Etou, Rudd cut the Scarlet Knights’ lead to four.
There would be little to celebrate for Bulls fans in the waning minutes of the game, though. With 6:37 left before the final buzzer, the Bulls were down 60-58, but failed to seize the opportunity. Rutgers went on a 13-0 run, bringing the score to 73-58, and never turned back, taking the game 79-69.
“I thought the key was how we started the game,” coach Stan Heath said. “We started the game sluggish. Not the kind of energy and fight you want to have, and they took advantage of it.”
The Bulls (12-12, 3-8) opened the game by surrendering a 15-2 run to the Scarlet Knights (10-14, 4-7), which proved too hard to overcome.Rutgers was winless on the road before playing USF.
“It was there,” Rudd said. “But then you got foul, foul, maybe a turnover… we were losing possessions as the game went on, and they were capitalizing on it.”
On the defensive end, the Bulls had no answer for junior guard Kadeem Jack who managed a career high 31 points. Jack was 9-for-14 from the field and made all 13 of his free throws.
“(Jack) had the game of his career,” Heath said. “We didn’t do anything, I think, to give him the resistance he needed. He kind of went where he wanted.”
One of USF’s biggest struggles this season has been its 3-point shooting – or lack thereof. The Bulls shot 18 percent from behind the arc and failed to record a successful 3-point attempt until sophomore guard Javontae Hawkins knocked one down with 1:18 left in the game.
“It’s a weak spot on our team right now, and in a game when you’re down big, you need that and not having that is a problem,” Heath said.
The silver lining in the loss was the consistent play of senior guard Martino Brock. Brock brought a much needed energy to the game with 17 points and gave the Bulls a spark off the bench.
USF’s freshmen big men got into some trouble with Chris Perry, John Egbunu and Rudd all having four fouls, forcing Heath to constantly sub out his defenders, making it hard to keep the game within reach.
“It’s really disappointing,” Brock said. “Coming into this game we felt like we had a great opportunity to win and get a winning streak going and ignite our season.”
After a good stretch of games including a win over SMU and an overtime thriller against UCF, the Bulls are disheartened to see this one go by the wayside.
Rutgers’ coach Kevin Jordan gave much praise to the Bulls, saying the team was “red hot” and that “their record was not indicative of their talent.”
USF now falls out of a three-way tie with Rutgers and Houston for the sixth and final spot eligible for a first-round bye in the AAC post-season tournament.
USF’s hopes for a NIT berth are dwindling with each loss. The road to the postseason won’t be easy as three of the Bulls’ next four opponents fall in the top 25.
USF travels to Connecticut on Wednesday to tip off with the No. 22 Huskies.