As the final seconds ticked away, the Sun Dome crowd was on its feet. Lately that's been to head to the exits, but tonight it was to applaud what was far and away the best effort they've seen this season. The USF Bulls pulled together and earned a 78-71 win over SMU on Tuesday night, and a new level of optimism covered everyone in green and gold.
USF (11-10, 2-6 AAC) looked like a completely different team tonight, playing with an energy and confidence not seen at all this year. Senior forward Victor Rudd bounced back after a poor performance that earned him a seat on the bench for the last 18 minutes in Memphis just two days ago. Tonight he registered 21 points on 8-12 shooting, including his 1,000th career point at USF. Junior guard Corey Allen Jr. also had a big night with 18 points, and freshman forward Chris Perry tied his career high of 18 points and collected 8 rebounds as well. Perry's 6-7 from the free throw line shows his improvement there as well, and will be a needed addition to the game of the talented freshman.
"I needed to bounce back for my teammates," said Rudd. "I got out of character at Memphis and I let my teammates know that ain't me." On getting a 1,000 career points, "it means a lot...I worked hard and this shows how hard I worked."
Senior Martino Brock sparked the crowd and his teammates with two highlight-reel steals on inbounds passes after made USF baskets that got everyone on their feet. His effort on both ends was indicative of that of the entire team, which seemed to wake from the slumber that had enveloped them over the past month.
SMU (16-5, 5-3 AAC) was definitely off tonight, but Basketball Hall of Famer Larry Brown gave lots of credit to the team his Mustangs beat by 17 points just 13 days ago. "I thought they did an unbelievable job- they out-coached us, they outplayed us." "I can't think of one area where we did well." The Mustangs had four players finish with double digits, led by sophomore guard Nic Moore with 23 points. Sophomore forward Markus Kennedy finished with only 11 points and couldn't seem to hold onto the ball, committing a season high eight turnovers. SMU came into the game as the #2 shooting defense by percentage in the country (holding teams to 36.2%), but the Bulls finished at 53.1%, the highest SMU has conceded all season.
"That's a great win for us," said USF Head Coach Stan Heath. "I thought tonight was just positive energy and just total focus on what we needed to do to win." Heath also credited a team meeting in the lobby after the Memphis game just two nights ago. "We talked about body language and focusing on the opponent and not the officials."
Whatever was said was perfect, as it looked like a completely different basketball team than anyone has seen all season. The question now becomes, with four days until a rematch with Cincinnati on the road, can they keep the momentum and focus they showed tonight?
Next up for the Bulls is a road game at Cincinnati this Sunday, February 2nd. Tip off is set for noon and will be broadcasted on CBS Sports Network. Hopefully things will go better than last time.