As the final shot left the uncontested hands of senior guard Nehemias Morillo with USF down three, coach Orlando Antigua hopefully watched, yearning for just one big shot to finally fall.
Sunday was not that day.
USF fell to Cincinnati 54-51 in the Sun Dome on Sunday afternoon, but even after committing 18 turnovers, the game was within their grasp.
“Just drop for me please; pretty please with sugar on top,” Antigua said of Morillo’s potential game-tying 3-pointer that ricocheted off the rim.
As he’s seen all season, when the game is on the line, the shots just don’t seem to find the net.
But in one of its best shooting performances of the season, it was USF’s defense that kept the Bulls in the game. The Bulls held the Bearcats (12-5, 2-2) to a measly 24 percent shooting in the first half (30.9 overall).
Shooting 51.1 percent themselves, the Bulls were poised to finally break through and end their six-game tumble. The only thing to stand in their way was themselves.
Prior to taking the potential game-winning shot, Morillo committed one of two costly turnovers that could have given USF a better chance at squeaking out a win.
As he dribbled baseline toward the basket, Morillo lost control of his dribble and the ball fumbled out of bounds with 1:16 remaining. The second came a minute later off an errant pass from senior center Jaleel Cousins.
“They gave us all of the opportunities to win this game,” freshman guard Jahmal McMurray said. “We just have to execute better. Towards the end there, not everybody was on the same page with the play we were running. … We just have to execute better in the clutch.”
USF averages 15 turnovers per game — good enough for last in the conference. Pair that with their inability to force opponents into mistakes and you get a 3-14 record with no conference wins in four attempts.
Even with its mindboggling struggles holding onto the ball, when it came to crunch time, USF was within reach.
Despite allowing a 20-6 run to open the second half, the Bulls thwarted the Bearcats offense down the stretch. USF forced a five-minute scoring drought — Cincinnati missed 10 straight field goals — to end the game on a 15-3 run, including six points from McMurray.
McMurray finished as the game’s leading scorer with 16 points and five rebounds.
He has carried the load with sophomore guard Roddy Peters out on a foot injury and leads the conference with 34 minutes played per game.
But when it came down to the final shot, McMurray decided he didn’t need to “be the hero.”
“For a freshman to make the right play at the end of a game when he’s the one guy on the team that I would allow to take a crazy shot or hero shot, but he didn’t,” Antigua said of McMurray opting to pass on the final shot. “He made the right play.”
Morillo, the recipient of McMurray’s pass, finished with six points in 26 minutes.
This game will be hard to swallow for Antigua and company; but knowing they were one shot away, they look to build off the strong showing.
“We still had the same amount of turnovers that we had in those blowout games as we did in this close game against a good team,” Cousins said. “Eliminate those turnovers and we could’ve won.”