Bulls come up just short against No. 21 Auburn

Freshman point guard Caleb Murphy scored 19 points against No. 21 Auburn on Friday, one point away from tying his career-high of 20. @USFMBB/TWITTER

Despite not being able to finish the upset, the USF men’s basketball team battled No. 21 Auburn in a confidence-building, competitive 58-52 loss Friday night at Amalie Arena.

The Bulls (2-2) at one point held a 15-point lead over the Tigers (3-0) in the first half, spurred on by a strong shooting performance from USF and nine first-half turnovers by Auburn. 

“I thought if we went out there and played with some fight, which I thought we did, that we’d be able to compete, and we proved that we could do that,” coach Brian Gregory said. “We’re just not quite good enough yet to win that game.”

USF was led in scoring by freshman Caleb Murphy and senior Javon Greene, who scored 19 and 15 points, respectively. The two guards have begun building a strong partnership in the backcourt that anchors the team’s offense.

“Each game we play [together] we feel better and more comfortable on the floor [with each other],” Greene said. “So I feel like [when it comes time for conference play], we’re going to be jelling real well.”

USF maintained its lead to begin the second half, but the Tigers turned up the pressure and showed why they are so highly regarded in the college basketball landscape, flipping the game on its head with a 15-0 run that started with 12:45 to play.

The Bulls struggled to match their opponent’s speed and tenacity, going on a 6:15 scoring drought that saw their nine-point advantage quickly evaporate and turn into a six-point deficit with 7:46 to go.

“I would say that we just slipped up a little bit on our coverages,” Greene said. “So I feel like we just kind of beat ourselves at the end of the game. We had [a few] little mistakes that we had. We’re going to correct them. Go watch down. We’ll go over [the game film] and we’ll come back better next game.”

The Tigers increased their lead to eight points with 3:37 remaining, their largest of the game up to that point. The game could have gotten away from the Bulls, but a couple of defensive stops gave them another chance.

Shortly after the final media timeout, Greene hit his fourth three-pointer of the night. The deficit was cut to just three points, and USF looked like a team ready to mount a final surge for the upset.

Sam Hines Jr. failed to convert either of his two free throws with 43 seconds left, however, and two Auburn free throws on the other end sent the Bulls to a close loss rather than an attention-grabbing upset.

“Defensively, [Hines Jr. is] very good,” Gregory said. “He did a great job on the glass for us, battling down there and different things like that. [However], he jammed his finger so it’s affecting his shooting a little bit right now.”

Friday’s matchup was also notable for another reason, as the men’s basketball program played at Amalie Arena for the first time since the 2011-12 season, when the venue served as a temporary home during renovations to the Yuengling Center. 

Gregory credited those working behind the scenes for making the players feel at home in downtown Tampa.

“The USF marketing and facilities departments did an unbelievable job [tonight],” Gregory said. “They set up [the court] exactly like a home game. You should have seen our guys when they walked out there for shootaround today, they were jacked up.

“We’ve talked [with USF Athletics] about [hosting a game at Amalie Arena] once a year or something like that.”

Regardless of the loss, the performance showed Gregory that his squad is capable of competing with the nation’s best, a sign he won’t take lightly.

“We tell the guys all the time, every setback is a setup for something greater, if you attack it that way,” Gregory said. “One of our core values [as a team] is responsibility. You own your response, no one else does, and so now we’ve got to respond the right way to [this loss].”

The Bulls return to the Yuengling Center on Wednesday to host Hampton University. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.