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Bulls snap losing-streak with rout in War on I-4

Senior guard Javon Greene shot 5-of-10 from three-point range en route to a season-high output in Saturday’s win over UCF. ORACLE PHOTO/FRANCISCO ROSA

USF men’s basketball swarmed UCF in an emotional 75-51 win in the latest edition of the War on I-4 Saturday night, led by energetic defense and a dominant rebounding display.

“We had to be disciplined in everything that we did [tonight],” coach Brian Gregory said. “I thought to play as hard as we did, but as disciplined as we did was really encouraging for me as a coach.”

The Bulls (6-10, 1-3 AAC) snapped a four-game losing streak and picked up their first conference win against the Knights in front of 3,072 rowdy fans.

“We knew the [energy] would be like this because this is a rivalry,” sophomore guard Caleb Murphy said. “[Gregory put a special emphasis] on this game. [USF] hadn’t lost to UCF [at home] in three years. We weren’t about to [break that streak].”

The noise echoed around the arena from tipoff to the final buzzer, providing a home-court advantage unlike any other home game this season.

“The fans were off the charts,” Gregory said. “The students and fans were tremendous. If we get [support] like that consistently, [the Yuengling Center] will be a tough place to play.”

The Bulls fed off the energy from the crowd throughout, never letting their level of effort wane, even in the closing moments of the game.

“Is it a sign of some growth? I hope so,” Gregory said. “To be able to be in that position and [the players] not lose their minds or get out of sorts … I thought we were just as aggressive in the second half in terms of attacking their pressure and getting the ball out on the break.”

With weeks since their last taste of victory, the Bulls knew just how much a win would mean to team morale.

“We had to win this game,” senior guard Javon Greene said, the team’s leading scorer with a season-high 19 points. “To be coming off a [four-game] losing streak, there was a lot of [emotion] built up. We had to lock in on each assignment, each possession and come out with the victory.”

The Bulls wasted no time playing fiery defense, closing out passing lanes and swiping at the ball on the very first possession.

They held UCF, a team that averages 72 points per game with three players averaging over 10 points each, to its lowest scoring output of the season. 

Darin Green Jr., the Knights’ leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, was stifled all night long, finishing with just three points on 1-of-8 shooting.

“We were dialed in in every aspect of our defensive coverages today,” Gregory said. “We challenged Javon, [sophomore guard Jamir Chaplin] and Murphy, those three guys that they guarded are high level [scorers].”

That level of commitment extended to the boards, where USF outrebounded the Knights 53-26, including more offensive rebounds (21) than UCF defensive boards (18).

“The best thing we did [tonight] was defend and rebound,” Greene said, who pitched in with a season-high nine boards himself. “We outrebounded them by more [total] rebounds than they had.”

Despite early foul trouble for sophomore center Russel Tchewa, freshman forward Bayron Matos proved a dominant inside presence in his minutes off the bench.

“[Matos] was huge tonight,” Gregory said. “We’re built on playing hard, playing with great energy and staying positive through tough times. And he is that to a tee … We need more of what Bayron Matos does from everybody.”

With just over five minutes of play remaining, the Bulls opened up a 25-point advantage in a game that ultimately turned out to be their largest margin of victory over UCF since 2015. Saturday’s romp was the team’s first win since a Christmas Eve triumph over Hawaii.

“We trusted each other [out on the court],” Greene said. “We’re doing things to get everybody involved because it’s a team effort. Everybody contributed to today’s game.”

The win is just the confidence booster the Bulls needed ahead of perhaps its toughest road trip of the season, a date with No. 11 Houston on Wednesday night.

“We can play like this every single game, so why don’t we?” Murphy said. “[Houston] just came and beat us on our court [Jan. 5], so why not do the same thing [Wednesday]?”

The Bulls will meet the Cougars in an 8 p.m. tipoff streamed on ESPN+ and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.