ORLANDO — Despite an abysmal overall record, USF's men arrived at the American Athletic Conference tournament in Orlando resembling a team on fire more than one on fumes.
Problem was, they encountered a Memphis club fuming mad.
Exactly a week after embarrassing the Tigers by 24 points on the road, the Bulls (10-22) couldn't replicate the romp Thursday at Amway Center. Down by as many as 15 in the second half, they rallied furiously before falling 79-77 in a nationally televised showcase for freshman David Collins (career-best 30 points).
"It's tough," said Bulls first-year coach Brian Gregory, whose team was seeking the program's first three-game win streak in conference play since 2012. "It's a bitter pill to swallow when you're playing pretty good basketball and you want to continue to play, and it ends."
Down 79-76, the Bulls had chance to tie after Memphis' Malik Rhodes missed two free throws with 18.3 seconds remaining. Senior point guard Stephan Jiggetts (16 points) got an open look from the left wing but missed. Freshman Justin Brown, fouled with less than a second to play, hit the first of two free throws.
"I actually thought it was going down," Jiggetts said.
It was one of the few shots that didn't fall in this matinee contest staged before an announced crowd of 7,856. The Tigers (20-12) set an AAC tournament single-game record by shooting 57.1 percent from the floor (28-of-49), but USF wasn't far behind at an even 50 percent (27-of-54).
Still, the Bulls, who never trailed last week at Memphis, never led Thursday.
They trailed 67-52 when Tigers junior Kyvon Davenport (27 points) hit a 3-pointer with 9:36 remaining, but answered with a 15-5 run. Collins, whose previous single-game high was 21 points, scored seven in a row — and nine overall — during the run.
"He's gonna be a star in this league," Memphis coach Tubby Smith said.
A Jiggetts 3-pointer from the left baseline — on a Collins assist — cut USF's deficit to 79-76 with 21 seconds remaining. Brown rebounded the second missed Rhodes free throw on the other end, and Gregory called a timeout that set up Jiggetts' final 3-point try.
"It looked good, it was just a little long," Gregory said. "It was right on the money. Really good execution by all five guys."
Jiggetts is one of three Bulls graduate transfers who played their final college game Thursday, but Collins and Brown are among four members of the normal rotation who return.
Additionally, two transfers who sat out this season become eligible, and freshman Alexis Yetna is expected back after being sidelined all season by an academic-related NCAA ruling. Gregory also added three players in the November signing period.
"I think we've got a really good foundation to build on," Gregory said. "The biggest thing is, you've got to believe that you can win at South Florida, which we do, and we know we can. But then you've got to go to work, and we've got some work to do, there's no question about that."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.