Bulls lose in typical fashion, fall to last place

Sophomore center Russel Tchewa led the Bulls in scoring in the loss to Tulsa with 13 points. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The final game in a congested two-week period for USF men’s basketball ended in another defeat, falling to Tulsa 65-57 on Saturday in a game that just about summarized the 2021-22 season.

“I’m pleased with the effort that we played with, that was a hard-fought game again,” coach Brian Gregory said. “Unfortunately just not able to make enough of the winning plays that you need to make.”

The Bulls (7-19, 2-12 AAC) struggled to shoot from all areas on the court, shooting just 22% from three-point range and 35% from the field overall. Both of those clips are below their season averages of 25% and 37%, respectively.

USF started the game with plenty of energy on defense, holding their opponents to 1-of-8 shooting for the first few minutes of the game. The active hands, quick rotations and help defense is a point of pride for the Bulls, a hallmark of their team philosophy. 

“When we’re disciplined on defense and in the right position, we come up with more steals, unforced turnovers than when we gamble and get out of position and play for steals,” Gregory said. “There’s a discipline that you need to play with and when our guys do that we’re much better.”

But the energy and discipline were not maintained. Tulsa found an offensive rhythm soon after the under-eight media timeout and converted 10 of the next 12 shots they attempted to end the half.

“I thought the game turned in the last few minutes of the first half,” Gregory said. “I thought our defensive intensity and even our offensive execution for the first 15 minutes in the first half was really good.

“Then a couple of turnovers that led to layups and [Tulsa was] right back in the game and we didn’t finish the half as well as we needed to.”

Overall, the Golden Hurricane shot the ball significantly better at 52%, yet USF stayed within six to 12 points of their opponents throughout the game thanks to a 12-3 advantage on the offensive boards, another common thread for them this season.

Nineteen Tulsa turnovers provided a boost for the Bulls as well. They scored 20 points off their opponent’s miscues, but Gregory thought the team left several points on the board.

“Twenty points off of 19 turnovers is good, but with 19 turnovers, you got to create probably 30 points,” he said. “And we’re just not able, in the open court, to either make the right decision or just finish the play.”

The two teams came into Saturday in a tie for last place in the conference standings, a title the Bulls now hold on their own. With just four games to go before the AAC conference tournament, USF is likely stuck with a bottom-three seed.

Tulsa was led in scoring by the hot shooting of sophomore guard Sam Griffin, who scored a game-high 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including four threes.

Sophomore center Russel Tchewa was the Bulls’ highest scorer with 13 points while grabbing five offensive rebounds, taking advantage of Tulsa’s lack of a true center to battle him in the paint and the space allowed inside by a zone defense.

“He’s playing the best basketball of his entire life right now,” Gregory said. “He’s getting better, but he’s upset right now because of the seven shots he missed. We got to get him to 9-of-13 instead of 6-of-13. That’s the next step for him is to finish all those plays.

“I think he’s getting more confident going against anybody right now.”

But the USF offense as a whole struggled to break down Tulsa’s zone. The structure of a 2-3 zone defense theoretically allows for open three-pointers, which the Bulls did not convert enough, according to Gregory.

“I think their zone is obviously very good,” he said. “It becomes a more controlled game because of that, and we haven’t shot the ball well against them.”

With a congested stretch of six games in 13 days in the rearview mirror, USF will enjoy a slightly longer break between games than they have had recently. The team will return to practice on Monday hoping to improve in defensive coverages, finishing in transition and sharing the ball, according to Gregory.

“We’re able to watch film now of these last six games heading into Wednesday,” he said. “Hopefully, those are the three areas we improve in.

“Obviously, we got to take the rest of the day and tomorrow off. We’ve [practiced] 15 straight days with six games.”

USF’s next game, on the road at East Carolina, tips off Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.