With the Houston Cougars (9-15 / 1-11 AAC) coming to town, this game should have looked like a pillow fight between conference bottom feeders; a mere formality to decide how the lower fifth of the AAC will look by the time the conference tournament starts. And it started out that way, with eight turnovers and 21 missed shots in the first ten minutes. If you've never seen Houston play before, their plan is basically this: drive, kick the ball out for a three, miss it, get the rebound, miss another three, lose the rebound. USF played a more physical style early on, grinding out each possession and building a modest lead (once as high as seven points).
Midway through the first half, however, Houston battled back and began trading baskets with USF, putting the game into a really exciting gridlock. Houston guard L.J. Rose started nailing three pointers. So did USF's Troy Holston Jr. After the teams combined for nine made shots in the first ten minutes, things came alive with 25 made shots in the next ten minutes. Houston went on an 8-0 run just before half time to go up 41-36.
After half time, USF started taking advantage of all of Houston's missed threes by pulling in the long defensive rebounds. When 45% of the shots a team takes are from beyond the arc, there are going to be plenty of rebounds out there, and the Bulls got into a rhythm of taking away Houston's second chances. USF didn't shoot as well in the second half, but they played good enough defense to hold the lead for the last eight minutes of the game. The Bulls did everything they could to stay ahead (including finally making some free throws) and it was just enough to come away with a win. The final score was 69-67.
Houston fought hard for the last few minutes, fouling intentionally and chipping away at USF's lead. They were even able to get one last play off, down by two with four seconds left. The Cougars rushed down court, but USF had L.J. Rose covered, so the ball went to true freshman guard Wes VanBeck. VanBeck's three point shot bounced off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded. "Holy moly," said Orlando Antigua after the game. "We just needed a little bit of luck."
Houston Head Coach Kelvin Sampson explained his team's predicament after the game. "We shoot a lot of threes. If you have another option for me, I'll do that." Not unlike USF, Sampson's team also depends on a little bit of luck: "For us to win games, everything has to go right," he added. Sampson also praised Antigua and the Bulls after their win. "I know what it's like having a young team, trying to battle through a season . . . here he is and his kids are playing their tails off with two weeks left in the season. Good for Orlando."
"Winning means a lot," said Anthony Collins, who finished the game with 13 points. "It helps the morale of the team. Everybody wants to win and that taste of winning again makes us want to go out there and win again and win again." After his six assists tonight, Collins now has 537 in his career and is second all-time at USF.
The secret to the Bulls' success tonight was that they leaned on each other, but did not depend too much on one player. The scoring was spread around (with Troy Holston Jr.'s 18 points making him the leader), the rebounds were spread around, even the blocks and steals were spread around.
For a team that is struggling and improving in every game, finally getting a win must feel great, even if it is of little consequence to the greater world of college basketball. This Saturday the Bulls will try to make it two in a row against East Carolina.