In front of about 100 people — including media, coaches, camera crews and about 30 family members of players and coaches — the men’s basketball season tipped off. Tinny-sounding fabricated crowd noise was pumped in from the public address system, but it was quickly drowned out by the shouts of players and coaches on the court.
Needless to say, the college basketball experience at the Yuengling Center wasn’t anything special to look at, and for USF, the team echoed that experience at the half after being down 46-42.
“Defensively, the first half wasn’t as good as we need to be,” coach Brian Gregory said. “And you when you play those teams, they’re difficult for us because we play big and they play small, and it’s just an area that kind of challenges our guys.”
But USF managed to turn it around, narrowly winning 94-84 over Florida College on Wednesday morning. And it turned out to be exactly what the Bulls needed.
“For us just to be able to tip it up and play was good,” Gregory said. “We needed to go against somebody else, we needed to go through all the stuff that you go through in your first game.”
It was the first outing for new Bulls — highly-rated freshman Caleb Murphy and Mississippi State forward transfer Prince Oduro started their first game with USF. Texas Tech center transfer Russell Tchewa and redshirt freshman forward Luke Anderson also made their debuts off the bench.
Forward Alexis Yetna also played his first competitive minutes since March 2019 after missing all of last season with a knee injury. As a starter, Yetna scored 9 points and went 3-of-3 from the field and 2-of-2 from 3-point range while also adding four rebounds in 12 minutes.
Yetna looks to be on the way back to his full form, Gregory said.
“I mean four rebounds in just under 12 minutes equates to a 10-rebound game in his normal minutes,” Gregory said. “Obviously, he’s worked hard on his shot, had two good looking threes. Still a little rusty defensively … but obviously, it was great to see.”
Unlike the rest of the team, Yetna’s performance took off in the first half, where he played nine minutes. For the Bulls in the first 20 minutes, the production was lacking, as Yetna and center Michael Durr led the team with 9 points each. Meanwhile, the Falcons finished the half with two players in double-digit points.
Along with its slow start, USF only took two narrow leads in the first 20 minutes.
A three-pointer from guard David Collins made for a 3-2 lead in the opening two minutes. Then the Falcons held as much as a 7-point lead for the next 10 minutes until the Bulls then again took a small lead.
The Falcons then stole the lead back and held it until five minutes into the final half. In addition to ruling most of the first 20 minutes on the scoreboard, Florida College also outshot USF.
The Falcons shot 16-of-33 from the floor and 6-of-16 from range. They also made 8-of-9 free throws. The Bulls, however, shot 14-of-34 from the floor and 5-of-16 from 3-point range.
After five minutes in the second half, USF took its third lead of the day, one the Bulls wouldn’t relinquish. USF held as much as an 18-point lead in the second half with 5:18 left. That capped off an 8-0 run, the Bulls’ third of the day in the previous 10 minutes.
Forward Justin Brown led the way with 13 points in the second half and scored 15 points in five minutes, starting at the midpoint of the half.
Another standout in the second half was sophomore guard Jamir Chaplin who scored 9 of his 14 points in the second half. For the game, Chaplin shot 5-of-7 from the field, scored 14 points and made seven rebounds. Gregory said Chaplin was the most improved player in the offseason, and he carried that over to the first game of the season.
“I’m pleased, he didn’t do anything different today than what he’s been doing for last six weeks of practice,” Gregory said. “He’s put in a lot of work, he’s a much-improved player, he plays hard and does everything the right way. Every single rep, every single practice, every single drill. Because that, as coaches, you don’t have to worry.”
It took some effort on USF’s part, much more than when the Bulls comfortably beat the Falcons 95-54 last February, but USF came away with a win. Now, the team travels to Uncasville, Connecticut, for the first game of the 2020 Air Force Reserve Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off against Atlantic 10 member Rhode Island.
The Rams boast more of a challenge for USF on paper, and it will take a considerably more focused defense, Gregory said.
“I think one of the key things that we have to get better at quickly is guarding the basketball,” he said. “We can’t let them get into the lane the way some of their guards got in the lane straight-line drives.
“Our guards have to really accept the challenge.”