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Efficient shooting springs Bulls to opening-night victory

Sophomore center Russel Tchewa scored 16 points in 23 minutes in the Bulls’ 75-54 over Bethune-Cookman on Tuesday night. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The USF men’s basketball team played an efficient offensive game en route to a 75-54 opening-night win over Bethune-Cookman on Tuesday.

“Any time we score over 70 [points], we’ve got a good chance [to win the game],” coach Brian Gregory said. “I thought we executed some good stuff [on the offensive end].”

In preseason, Gregory emphasized the depth the Bulls have at all positions, something showcased by the 10-man rotation with every player on the court for at least 10 minutes.

The first half featured a couple of five-man substitutions, but Gregory made it clear it was an entirely circumstantial decision rather than a planned strategy.

“[The full lineup substitution] was not the plan, but there was no dead ball,” he said. “By the time the first dead ball hit, [the starters were tired.]

“As I said after the exhibition game [against Voorhees College on Nov. 1], our strength is in our numbers, so we need to be able to play 10-11 guys.”

After the Bulls built a 27-16 lead in the first half, Bethune-Cookman responded with a zone defense that alternated between a 1-3-1 and 2-3 setup mid-possession.

“[BCU was] able to switch some defenses as they did at the end of the first half,” Gregory said. “We did not execute well against the zone the last six minutes [of the first half].”

The USF offense sputtered for a while as it adjusted. The Wildcats took advantage with a 13-2 run to end the half, going into the locker rooms with the game tied at 29.

Adjustments were clearly made during the break, as USF opened the second half with 10 minutes of hyperefficient offense. The Bulls shot 10-of-13 from the field, opening a double-digit lead they would never relinquish.

“To our guys’ credit, they went out in the second half and defended the same way,” Gregory said. “They just executed [the offense] better as shown by the 66% from the field and in the second half.”

Attacking the rim became a theme of the second half, as the team finished with 50 points in the paint to the Wildcats’ 22.

“Most of the middle [of the Bethune-Cookman] defense was open and the backside near the baseline,” junior guard Jamir Chaplin said. “I just played my game. I saw [the three-point shot] wasn’t falling so I just decided to find another aspect of the game I could dominate.”

Sophomore center Russel Tchewa led the Bulls with a career-high 16 points and forced his way to the free throw line seven times, missing just one of his attempts from the stripe.

“I just did everything to win, to help my team win the game,” he said.

The offense excelled with the ball in the hands of sophomore guard Caleb Murphy who finished with 11 points and four assists to just one turnover.

“His one turnover I can live with,” Gregory said. “He was trying to throw the ball ahead and that’s one thing that we’ve been working on. You can see we’re playing at a faster pace, moving the ball up the court faster. ​​But we talked about [keeping his assist-to-turnover ratio] at two-to-one, three-to-one. Four-to-one is even better.”

The only notable absence from Tuesday’s victory was sophomore forward Jalyn McCreary, who scored a game-high 17 in the exhibition win over Voorhees.

“He’s got a little bit of the flu, not COVID,” Gregory said. “Doctors didn’t think it was in his best interest to play [tonight]. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go on Saturday [against Georgia Southern].”

Overall, Gregory and his staff were pleased with the team’s performance, which will serve as a foundation to build upon going forward, he said.

“I thought we got good basketball from a lot of guys [tonight],” Gregory said. “So it was a good step for us [to start the season].”

The Bulls return to the court Saturday at noon as they host Georgia Southern. The game can be seen on ESPN+ and broadcast on iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.