Sometimes, it’s ok to save your best for last.
Despite trailing by 13 points with less than four minutes to play in regulation, the Bulls rallied in the final minutes and overtime for a 79-73 win over Bethune-Cookman.
With sophomore guard Troy Holston Jr. missing the game with an undisclosed left knee injury and the returning Jahmal McMurray coming off the bench, USF coach Orlando Antigua inserted freshmen forward Malik Fitts and guard Mike Bibby into the starting lineup.
Coupled with playing in their first game in nine days due to finals week, USF (5-3) showed some early rust committing 11 turnovers in the games’ first 13 minutes.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Antigua said. “You got to come out from the beginning and play with that kind of fight, that kind of energy. As a young team, they got to learn that. They got to learn that.”
The Wildcats (3-8) would take advantage of the early extra possessions, hitting five 3-pointers and leading by as many as 19 in the first half.
Led by sophomore guard Quinton Forrest’s 17 first half points, Bethune Cookman would control a 44-31 lead over USF at the half.
“I just think we were trying to rush,” junior forward Bo Zeigler said. “We just saw a lot of opportunities we could take and weren’t really thinking and turning the ball over.
“Not getting back in transition, and they got some early transition points that put us in the hole.”
Bethune-Cookman would maintain a double-digit lead until 8:02 remaining in the second half, when two free throws from junior guard Geno Thorpe would cap off a 7-0 run to cut the Wildcats lead to 57-39.
The teams traded baskets, with the Wildcats leading by 13 with 4:17 remaining.
Just one minute later, everything would change.
Off a lob from Geno Thorpe, junior forward Bo Zeigler threw down an alley-oop to cut the lead to 66-55 with 3:17 remaining and swing the momentum entirely in favor of the Bulls.
The dunk would propel USF to end regulation on an 11-0 run, capped off by two Geno Thorpe free throws with 6.2 seconds remaining to tie the score at 66 a piece.
“(It’s) not just production, but the fight, the energy, the spirit that we needed,” Antigua said.
“(Zeigler’s) a kid that had been struggling a little bit the last few days coming through some sickness, but it was really good to see that and he definitely sparked us.”
The Bulls went on to outscore Bethune-Cookman 13-7 in the extra period, with McMurray scoring 7 of his 20 points in those final five minutes.
McMurray made only his second appearance of the season after missing the first six games of the season for violating team rules.
Four players would finish in double figures for USF, led by Zeigler and McMurray with 20 points each. Malik Fitts and redshirt freshman Tulio De Silva would each contribute 12 points, with De Silva leading the Bulls with 15 rebounds to give him his second double-double of the season.
The Bulls return to action Saturday afternoon as they host No. 16 South Carolina. The Gamecocks (8-1) had previously been undefeated until losing 67-64 in the final seconds to unranked Seton Hall Monday night. Tip-off is slated for 1 p.m.