By Will Turner
TAMPA – Last season, the USF Bulls went 10-22 in men’s basketball in the first year with Brian Gregory at the helm.
It’s not even January 1 and the Bulls have met that mark in the 18-19 campaign. USF became just the sixth team in school history to win ten of its first twelve games with a gritty, 60-54, victory over Fairleigh Dickinson (NJ) in front of an announced crowd of 2,945 on Saturday afternoon at the Yuengling Center.
“In a long season, you have games where you end up winning and you don’t feel great about it, but as a coach, and with where we’re at with this program, we’re happy with every win,” said men’s basketball head coach Brian Gregory.
The Bulls started things on a 10-0 run, which included a pair of exclamation-point blocks from David Collins and Alexis Yetna on the defensive end to keep the Knights scoreless through the first four minutes.
USF extended its lead to 15 through the first seven minutes. It controlled the pace and played dominating defense to keep the Northeastern Conference opponent contained.
“Probably those first 15 minutes were the best that we’ve played all season long,” Gregory said.
Thanks in part to 63 percent field goal shooting, USF held a 17-point lead midway through the first half.
Good shooting from the field has been the hallmark of this USF team during its first 12 games. It’s not just about the talent, either, it’s about the basketball IQ with the plays that some of the younger guys are making.
“One of the big differences in our team this year, throughout a game we may take only one or two bad shots. Last year, it was 10-15 bad shots,” Gregory said.
FDU stormed back in the first half, turning things around in the final five minutes, trimming USF’s lead to 10 off of a layup from Darnell Edge.
The Bulls were never really able to close out the Knights on Saturday, allowing them to hang around. Although USF led for 33 minutes, that stat alone did not tell the whole story. A couple of missed opportunities allowed for FDU to get back into it. Mayan Kiir almost had a statement one-handed dunk to go but was called for a travelling violation.
On the other end, the Knights rode a 15-0 run of its own which included three three-pointers from Kaleb Bishop to get FDU within one. Edge netted a pair of free throws and then converted a fast break layup to give the Knights their first lead of the afternoon, 46-43.
USF stormed back with a quick five-point run including a three-pointer from Justin Brown and a pair of Yetna free throws. Brown’s bucket was the first for USF in over seven minutes during one of the most critical stretches of the game.
Yetna grabbed his second straight double-double, his sixth on the season midway through the second half in what turned out to be another brilliant performance. The redshirt freshman from Paris finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds, allowing him to maintain his double-double average in both categories.
The American Athletic Conference’s back-to-back freshman of the week has developed into quite the threat for the Bulls in the early-going.
“He just plays hard on every single play,” Gregory said. “He thinks that every single rebound should be his, so now I get ticked off when he doesn’t get it. He’s shooting the ball better, Lex has a nose for the ball. I’d like to say that we taught him that, but we didn’t. He’s got a knack for that. I’m pleased with his development through the first 12 games,” Gregory said.
FDU retook the lead with an all-too-easy dunk from Mike Holloway Jr. just short of five minutes to play. That 52-51 lead would be short-lived when Laquincy Rideau hit a game-tying field goal, followed up a minute later with a pair of free throws from Collins.
The hosts lived off of those free throws, not getting a bucket from the field in the final seven minutes of play.
Edge hit a game-tying field goal with 1:25 to play. On the next possession, Brown pulled down a huge offensive rebound off a missed three-point shot from Collins, then doing the same thing, 20 seconds later off a missed shot from Rideau.
“I realized that my man wasn’t boxing out – he wasn’t boxing out the whole game – I was just able to get into the right positions to make those plays.
Jahlil Jenkins committed two costly turnovers in the final 25 seconds, allowing USF possession, forcing FDU to foul and permitting the Bulls to ice the game with free throws.
The Bulls finished 38 percent from the field for the game, which included a 2-of-15 performance from Collins, who struggled offensively but shined defensively. Brown added 12 points and six rebounds as USF outrebounded the Knights 47-24, including 17-6 on the offensive glass.
The Bulls tenth out-of-conference win is the most since the 2009-10 season. USF has won six straight games, the first time it has done that since the 07-08 season. The Bulls improved to 2-0 against Fairleigh Dickinson all-time with the victory.
USF will host UCONN in its first game on its AAC slate, it will be an 8:30 p.m. clash at the Yuengling Center on Wednesday night.