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College basketball

USF dodges trouble

In another close one until the end, Bulls prevail 71-64 over Saint Louis, sweeping a home series.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

TAMPA -- Spend as much time near the flame as South Florida has lately, and you are bound to get burned -- or annealed.

The Bulls displayed their emerging steely resolve again Saturday. In their sixth straight game that came down to the final few minutes, the Bulls made it three straight wins, 71-64 over Saint Louis before 4,503 at the Sun Dome.

"We always played hard, but we just had foul trouble or injuries or suspensions -- it was always something," guard/forward Jimmy Baxter said. "Everybody's buying into Coach (Seth) Greenberg's plan now, and that's what we should have been doing from the beginning.

"We love playing with each other."

The Bulls shot a season-high 59.5 percent (25-of-42) to sweep the three-game homestand and improve to 12-8, 5-4 in Conference USA. Saint Louis dropped to 8-12, 2-7.

"We've had some crushing losses, yet they've come back to practice each day and let me rant and rave. They want to get better," Greenberg said. "This (home)stand was our chance to get some momentum. One thing is to have the opportunity, the other thing is to seize the moment. Tonight we seized the moment -- and during the last 10 days."

Before the homestand, the Bulls went 1-2 on a road trip, in which each game came down to the final shot. The stressful experiences apparently helped. USF since has edged Charlotte 67-64 and TCU 71-67 before pulling away late Saturday.

"(The succession of close games) makes everybody take ownership in their role, in their part," said center Will McDonald, who had a game-high 17 points. "All the close wins ... it does make a team grow."

With USF trailing 54-53 with 4:39 left, Greenberg opted for an unusual lineup of three guards -- the biggest was 6-foot-1 Danny Oglesby -- with big men Gerrick Morris and Will McDonald.

It clicked. USF scored on four consecutive possessions to seize a 61-54 lead. Meanwhile, Morris' presence thwarted the Billikens.

A shot-blocking specialist, the 6-foot-10 Morris has played sparingly. But when Greenberg switched from zone to man to man in the second half to help contain SLU star guard Marque Perry (13 points), Morris became a major factor.

"He put on a defensive clinic," Greenberg said. "He was so active guarding screens, and his recovery was so quick to help on penetration. He was the missing link. He was just magnificent."

"(Morris) stepped up," McDonald said. "When you've got somebody playing that hard, it makes everybody else play harder."

The Bulls pulled ahead by 10 early, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Drew Diener (15 points, 5 of 7 on 3s) helped SLU cut it to 31-30. A 3-pointer by Baxter (15 points, 3 of 6 on 3s) made it 36-30 at halftime.

SLU, 0-8 on the road but coming off a narrow defeat at Marquette, which has a 27-game home win streak, went ahead 45-43 on a 3-pointer by Josh Fisher (14 points). It went back and forth until the Bulls surged away.

Late free-throw shooting clinched it for the second straight game. Brian Swift, who is 21-for-21 this season, had several critical plays late and two clutch free throws. Reggie Kohn (12 points, seven assists) was 4-for-4 from the line in the final 10 seconds.

Baxter got his first extended breather in weeks, sitting for 13 minutes; he had sat 10 minutes total in the previous six games.

"(Freshman) Danny Oglesby (was playing), and you've got Jimmy Baxter over on the sideline cheering him on," Greenberg said. "That's hopefully part of developing an identity of trying to be a part of something bigger than yourself."

USF is 1-7 away from the Sun Dome, and four of the seven remaining games are on the road. Wednesday is a rematch at UAB, which won 79-69 Jan. 8 at the Sun Dome.

"We're going on the road with high hopes," McDonald said. "It's a battle from here on out. You have no secrets in conference play."

"It's coming together," Baxter said. "It hasn't been like this in awhile."

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