TAMPA — Midway through Saturday’s game, the Sun Dome crowd was energized by a thunderous dunk from South Florida senior forward Victor Rudd, who delivered what might have been this season’s most electrifying play in college basketball. He seemingly rose to the rafters.
By the end of Saturday night, though, the Bulls plummeted with a resounding thud.
USF suffered a very bad loss, falling 79-69 against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who had been winless on the road. The Sun Dome’s announced attendance was 4,605.
The Bulls (12-12, 3-8 AAC) fell behind Rutgers (10-14, 4-7) in a race for the league’s sixth-place position, which assures a first-round bye in the AAC tournament.
“It hurts,’’ said a somber USF coach Stan Heath. “This was one we thought we could get. We can’t get this one back, but we have to find a way to make it up.’’
Heath said the Bulls were haunted by a slumbering start — they fell behind 15-2, then 22-8 in the game’s largest deficit.
“We had to play catch-up the whole game,’’ said senior guard Martino Brock, USF’s most consistent offensive force with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
The Bulls seemed in decent position, pulling within 60-58 on Brock’s layup with 6:37 to go. From there, Rutgers went on an 11-0 run and its margin never dipped below double digits.
Rutgers shot 56.5 percent in the second half and made 15 of 19 free-throw attempts.
“They were scoring and we weren’t,’’ Heath said. “I saw defensive lapses more than anything else.’’
USF was hampered by severe foul trouble. In the last six minutes, the freshman big men (Chris Perry, John Egbunu) and Rudd each had four fouls.
The Bulls had no answers for Rutgers forward Kadeem Jack, who had a career-high 31 points and was 13-for-13 from the free-throw line. In desperate straits, the Bulls again offered little from beyond the arc, missing their first eight 3-point attempts and finishing 2-for-11.
USF’s faltering second half took the starch out of what still was a major highlight play from Rudd.
With Rutgers leading 34-28, Rudd stole an outlet pass in front of the midcourt line. As he dribbled toward the basket, he saw Egbunu on the backside and considered an alley-oop pass. But then he noticed Rutgers defender Junior Etou stepping into the lane, so Rudd shifted into another gear.
Rudd, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and five turnovers, jumped from outside the key, delivering a right-handed windmill dunk. He jumped over a prone Etou — a startling sight — then drew a foul and hit the free throw.
“It was two points (actually three),’’ Heath said. “It was a big-time play. He has made them before.’’
Etou was poster-ized.
Rudd’s play immediately made the short list of best dunks by South Florida players at the Sun Dome, joining the likes of Charlie Bradley and Gary Alexander.
But with Rutgers winning — and USF clearly deflated afterward — the spectacular play was all relative.
“We just had to make sure our guys didn’t get rattled,’’ Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said. “I said, ‘It’s three points, fellas. Just make sure we keep doing what we have to do.’ ’’
And they did – especially down the stretch.
“It’s disappointing,’’ Heath said. “Very disappointing.’’