TAMPA — Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were just too much for the University of South Florida to handle Wednesday night, carrying the visiting Connecticut Huskies to a 61-56 win against the Bulls.
USF's worst game of the season was a 83-40 drubbing at the hands of the Huskies on Feb. 12, but the Bulls actually looked like they were ready to erase that, leading for much of the game before UConn's stars took the game into their own hands.
After a sluggish start in which the Huskies opened on a 5-0 run, the Bulls righted the boat and controlled the rest of the first half, opening a 28-22 halftime lead.
The Bulls continued their progress and led 38-29 with 14:01 to play before a devastating 18-0 run by UConn turned the tables.
“Our guys just found something deep inside,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “They found something deep inside and they toughened up. … We know we weren't going to beat this team by 40 or nothing like that, but I wanted to see our toughness. (USF) played a hell of a game.”
Trailing by nine points by the end of the Huskies' run, USF (12-16, 3-12) didn't give in.
“It was a great effort,” Bulls coach Stan Heath said. “I thought our ball movement was better. We did some really good things out there.”
The Bulls cut their deficit to 50-49 with 3:54 left, but Napier scored eight points from that point to close UConn (22-6, 10-5) close out the game, including a 3-pointer over USF's Victor Rudd with 24 seconds left to give the Huskies a five-point lead.
“That guy (Napier), to me, is the player of the year in our league,” Rudd said. “He's the reason why that team is as good as it is. Big players make big plays at the end of the day and he did that.”
USF held Napier for most of the game, limiting him to two points in the first half. He finished with a game-high 17. Boatright added another 14. Heath suggested very few college teams are capable of keeping Napier in check over the course of an entire game.
“So far, nobody has had the answer,” Heath said. “I've seen him hit the buzzer shot against Florida. I've seen him do it in our league. That's what makes him special. He's an assassin. He loves those moments.”
The Bulls showed signs of progress, hanging with a team that beat them by 43 points two weeks earlier. USF controlled the glass, outrebounding UConn 39-29, including 13 offensive rebounds. Rudd led USF with 14 points.
“I think tonight was a pride game,” Rudd said. “At the end of the day, we still want to win. It hurts to lose, but you know you're not 40 points (worse than UConn.) We just want to play this way for the rest of the time we play. Hopefully we can pick up some wins.”
USF has three opportunities left to pick wins, heading on road trips to Rutgers and Houston before closing the season at home against Temple on March 8.
UCONN (22-6) — Daniels 2-5 0-0 5, Napier 6-13 3-3 17, Brimah 1-1 0-0 2, Boatright 3-11 6-7 14, Kromah 3-5 1-1 8, Nolan 1-2 0-0 2, Samuel 1-1 0-0 2, Giffey 4-7 0-0 11, Olander 0-2 0-1 0, Facey 0-0 0-0 0, Calhoun 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-49 10-12 61.
SOUTH FLORIDA (12-16) — Rudd 5-17 4-5 14, LeDay 0-1 0-0 0, Egbunu 3-6 2-7 8, Allen Jr. 2-7 1-1 5, McLendon 2-4 0-0 4, Brock 3-7 0-0 7, Heath 2-4 2-3 7, Hawkins 1-1 0-0 3, Perry 2-6 4-5 8. Totals 20-53 13-21 56.
Halftime—South Florida 28-22. 3-Point Goals—UConn 9-18 (Giffey 3-4, Napier 2-3, Boatright 2-4, Kromah 1-2, Daniels 1-3, Calhoun 0-2), South Florida 3-10 (Hawkins 1-1, Brock 1-1, Heath 1-2, Allen Jr. 0-1, Rudd 0-5). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—UConn 29 (Daniels, Giffey 5), South Florida 39 (Egbunu 9). Assists—UConn 12 (Napier 7), South Florida 10 (Rudd 5). Total Fouls—UConn 16, South Florida 16. A—5,115.