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Defense keys Bulls victory over Blazers

USF 81, UAB 65: The Blazers commit 17 first-half turnovers, thanks to USF's trapping zone.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2002

TAMPA -- Rangy, kinetic 6-foot-6 Altron Jackson greeted the UAB point guard as he crossed halfcourt.

To the right was the turbo-boosted 6-3 Marlyn Bryant or the springy, 6-4 Jimmy Baxter. To the left was long-armed, 6-8 B.B. Waldon. In the middle was 6-11 Will McDonald or 6-11 Mike Bernard.

South Florida's front line of defense in its 1-3-1 trapping zone was all arms, legs and energy Tuesday at the Sun Dome, and the Bulls rode it to an easy 81-65 victory in front of an announced 3,852.

The Blazers (10-12, 3-6), flummoxed by USF's defense, forked over 17 first-half turnovers as USF led from the start and was not threatened.

"In the first half, we were pathetic," UAB coach Murry Bartow said. "Their zone has given us problems in the past, and it gave us problems (Tuesday)." The Bulls (15-7, 5-4) also were sloppy, committing 20 turnovers. Nonetheless, they led 37-26 at halftime and by at least nine the rest of the way.

The key was the defense, which harangued and harassed UAB's small guards, 5-10 Eric Bush (five first-half turnovers) and 5-11 Morris Finley (three). "We like small guards," USF coach Seth Greenberg said, grinning. "That's to our advantage. We knew we were going to play a lot of 1-3-1. We got easy baskets."

With junior forward Greg Brittian out with a sore foot (and possible stress fracture), Bryant, a freshman, got the start. Baxter, a sophomore, subbed for Bryant, played a career-high 27 minutes and had a superb game.

Baxter made 5 of 8 shots from the floor, including 3 of 5 3-pointers. He had 13 points, 4 assists and 2 steals and repeatedly made smart decisions.

The Boca Ciega graduate, who was averaging 3.3 points coming in, smiled when it was suggested this was his best game as a Bull.

"Obviously," Baxter said. "All of the guarding Altron Jackson, and last year (former Bull) Cedric Smith, it's finally paying off. Learning from Altron in practice and just watching and studying the game has made me a better player.

"I knew that we were short a man and that I needed to step up for the team. We were going to get it done down low, and I needed to get out there and help out the wing players. And that's what I did. I came to play." "Jimmy was very patient and let things come to him," Greenberg said.

Added Jackson: "He played well tonight. That was his best game since he's been here."

Jackson had a strong all-around performance. He set the tempo at the top of the zone and had a game-high 23 points, 6 assists and 3 steals.

"Altron Jackson was a pro tonight," Greenberg said. "He did everything well,"

Jackson dedicated the game to his high school English teacher at Sarasota Riverview, Donna Altman, who recently was diagnosed with cancer. He said the defense was the key. "It starts at the top. I was just trying to get my hands up, get a lot of deflections," Jackson said. "The wings, they were closing it out and rebounding the ball.

"(The small guards for UAB) make it easier. It's harder for them to see because my wingspan is so long once I get my hands up."

Another key was the inside dominance of Bernard and McDonald, who have become consistent, efficient scorers. Bernard had 14 points in 14 minutes, making 6 of 8 shots, including four consecutive baskets that staked USF to a 17-9 lead. McDonald also scored 14.

The victory -- and the strong defense -- helped USF put the 96-77 loss Friday at Louisville behind it. The Cardinals made a school- and conference-record 19 3-pointers in that game. UAB was just 5-of-21 on 3-pointers.

The Bulls made 31 of 58 shots (53.4 percent), shooting better than 50 percent in consecutive games.

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