ORLANDO — Following a regular season that gave the Bulls little reason to smile, USF forward Chris Perry couldn’t help but break out a grin when he stepped to the free-throw line with his team leading East Carolina 66-62 with 45 seconds remaining at the Amway Center.
“We ain’t going home yet,” Perry said after he swished the first free throw to give the Bulls a five-point lead.
USF (8-24, 4-14) finished off the remaining 45 seconds, defeating ECU 71-66 to give the Bulls the first win of the AAC Tournament.
Following a back-and-forth first half that left the Bulls with a 28-27 lead going into halftime, USF broke out of its shooting slump to score 43 points in the second half and pull away.
With the game still in question in the final minutes, the Bulls ended the game making four of its final six attempts to keep the Pirates at bay.
“Today we really played together, a lot more than I’ve seen this season,” Perry said. “It made everyone feel so much better about themselves. When we made mistakes we just kept each other up.”
Missing junior guard Caleb White, who was out due to sickness, ECU (12-20, 4-14) had difficulty handling pressure on the perimeter from the Bulls’ defense, shooting 6-of-30 on 3-point attempts.
“For us, as small as we are, we have to make those perimeter shots and we didn’t make them today,” ECU coach Jeff Lebo said. “Prince (Williams) and B.J. (Tyson) really struggled.”
USF scoring-leader Jahmal McMurray was held to no points on 0-of-5 shooting in the first half and was unable to break out of his shooting slump, finishing 3-of-12. With McMurray missing, senior forward Angel Nunez and Perry took control of the Bulls’ offense.
The forward duo led the Bulls’ second-half charge, combining for 21 points and eight rebounds in the final 20 minutes.
“I was really happy and excited about (Nunez’s) effort on the boards, not settling and what he was able to do defensively for us,” USF coach Orlando Antigua said. “But not just him, Chris in the second half gave us some big minutes, big, big, minutes, some big rebounds. We need that kind of performance from both of those guys.”
With USF’s first-ever AAC Tournament win complete, the Bulls will match up against first-seeded Temple on Friday at noon.
“With all the obstacles and all the ups and downs of the season, to be able to have a little bit of that success at the end of the season, in this kind of environment, with those kind of stakes, I’m really happy for them,” Antigua said.