There are several immediate takeaways from last night's thriller in Orlando. First, that even without Anthony Collins, USF is a much more talented basketball team than UCF. Isaiah Sykes aside--he played brilliantly-- no one on the Knights really impressed at all. The Bulls should trample the Knights in Tampa, but USF has never been very good at doing what they should do.
Second, the Bulls have been playing much better as of late. I'm hesitant to toss out the dreaded "turned the corner" phrase this quickly, but the team survived their murderer's row in the AAC (seriously, let's review this: at SMU, Cincy, Louisville, at Memphis, SMU, at Cincy. Who thought that was okay?) still afloat at 11-11 and are now enjoying a much cushier latter half of the schedule. There are plenty of wins to be had if the Bulls keep playing like they have-- e.g. when they have scoring options beyond Victor Rudd Slamma Jamma, Victor Rudd Contested Three, and Perry/Egbunu Layup. Last night option number four was Martino Brock, and he very nearly took over the game at stretches with 17 points, seven rebounds and a pair of steals.
Third, this game was totally bonkers. These were two teams that ranked 144th and 294th in points per game (guess which one is which!) and were expected by most to engage in a rock fight, and for the first twenty minutes they lit up the scoreboard like nobody's business. Sure, this was largely in part to the fact that neither team was interested in playing a lick of defense, but it made for a wonderfully entertaining game as long as you turned a blind eye to quality of play. Early on USF pounded the ball inside with Rudd and Perry at will, while UCF had-- and sank-- basically any perimeter shot they wanted. It was fantastically and gloriously terrible, and it made no sense whatsoever.
After going into the break with the Bulls up a point, both teams promptly seemed to remember their scoring woes and started consistently airballing open two-footers (Not an exaggeration. Bless you, Vic and Chris). USF went on an All Martino Brock Everything run to establish a lead, but the Knights countered with an All Isaiah Sykes Everything run-- I can't say enough about how well Sykes played-- and somehow managed to grab a 70-68 advantage with just 40 seconds left in regulation.
This is the first situation where the Bulls should have lost. There's only one player on this team that can create his own shot, and that certain Mr, Rudd is infamous for his notoriously poor shot selection in crunch time. But it was Rudd who drove into the lane and with just ten seconds to go, drained an awkward layup that sent the game to overtime.
And it was Rudd who completely dominated the overtime period, scoring the Bulls' first eight points en route to a 78-72 advantage. But this is USF, and USF is bound by some unholy contract to do USF things, and thus allowed the Knights to knot the game at 78 and have the ball with 26 seconds left, holding for the winning shot.
This is the second situation where the Bulls should have lost. But they didn't, because John Egbunu knocked a Sykes layup into the hands of Shemiye McClendon, who took a few dribbles before Kasey Wilson backed into him at halfcourt with less than a second to go in the game. I don't know if it was actually a foul, and I don't really want to know. All I know is that Teddy Valentine said it was a foul, and sent McClendon-- a timid five for nine from the charity stripe on the season-- to the line in front of a hostile, bloodthirsty and undereducated crowd, where he promptly sunk the first because this game made no sense whatsoever.
And it continued to make no sense whatsoever until Calvin Newell's desperation heave from under his own basket came literally a few inches away from winning the game for the Knights. But it didn't, and USF defeated their born-again rivals with one beautiful conglomeration of no-sense-making. And all of a sudden, the order of the universe was restored.
Between last night and a fantastic class on National Signing Day, we might all wind up remembering February 5th as the day that swung the momentum back in USF's favor and ended UCF's four-month reign of terror. Or we may not-- after all, there's still a rematch to be played in Tampa in just ten days. But a couple things are certain: the reborn USF-UCF series has now produced a pair of thrilling games and could be the start of something really fun, and USF basketball--after essentially being left for dead a week ago by yours truly-- is now a living, breathing, entity. Go figure.