UAB makes a 3-pointer in the final second to beat USF 61-59.
TAMPA - The whistle blew, Terrence Leather's shot dropped through the hoop with 11.6 seconds to go and the Sun Dome crowd erupted. South Florida was about to take the lead, about to beat a likely NCAA Tournament team, about to give its season of despair an improbable, solitary moment of excellence.
Leather punched the air in exultation and then swished the free throw to complete the three-point play for a one-point lead.
In 11.3 seconds it was UAB exulting. Sidney Ball's 3-pointer from the corner finished perhaps the most agonizing chapter in the Bulls' painful season.
UAB 61, USF 59.
"All the wind in my body just left," USF point guard Brian Swift said.
The Bulls dropped to 1-14 in Conference USA, while UAB (18-8, 11-4) stayed on course for the NCAAs. Six of USF's conference losses have been by seven points or less. A length-of-the-court pass with 0.3 to go sailed out of bounds.
"Every game hurts even more," Bulls forward Brian Graham said. "It seems like the basketball gods are against us sometimes."
On the final play, UAB guard Morris Finley was guarded tightly near the top of the key and whipped it to Ball, who was open to his left. Graham ran at Ball and almost blocked the shot.
"They just made one more play than we did," Graham said. "I thought I was right there on him."
"I saw no one," Ball said.
USF led 2-0 and trailed the rest of the way until Leather's three-point play. Behind 58-56, Leather got the ball on the right, spun and adjusted to take the 8-foot bank shot with his opposite (left) hand while getting fouled by Tony Johnson.
"I was filled with emotions at that moment. The whole season kind of ran through my head," said Leather, a junior from Tampa who led USF with 20 points and seven rebounds. "I had to calm down to make the free throw.
"Then, oh man ... nothing's gone our way. But you've got to give credit to Ball."
Graham's comment about the "basketball gods" could have referred to a critical play that went against USF in the waning moments. With the score tied at 56, UAB missed, and a mad scramble for the rebound carried the ball out to the free-throw line. It suddenly kicked free to Gabe Kennedy, who dunked for a 58-56 lead, setting up Leather's three-point play.
USF coach Robert McCullum was proud of the comeback - the Bulls trailed by as many as 14 - and his team's defense. The Bulls limited UAB to 29 percent shooting (9-of-31) in the second half. UAB had beaten USF by 39 in their first meeting.
"This is as disappointing as any (loss this season), to have the lead that late," McCullum said. "This certainly would have been a big feather in our cap ... Our defense was outstanding. We just fought them."
For Ball, a fifth-year senior who averages 7.6 points, it was a career moment.
"It is the biggest shot (I've made)," he said. "We were just praying. The prayer was answered for us."
USF has dressed six scholarship players for much of the conference season and received a rare lift from its bench. Junior forward Brandon Brigman, who has been hampered by a hernia that will require postseason surgery, had seven points and five rebounds after halftime.
The Blazers maintained the possibility of finishing in a multiple-team tie for first place in C-USA. UAB, Memphis, Charlotte, Cincinnati and DePaul all could finish 12-4.
The top four teams get an opening-round bye in the C-USA tournament. A team that finishes tied for first could wind up fifth and playing an opening-round game followed the next day by a quarterfinal against another team that tied for first.
The Bulls finish the season Saturday vs. DePaul at the Sun Dome.
COMMITMENT: USF received an oral commitment from 6-foot-3 guard Montavious Waters of Albany (Ga.) Westover. The spring signing period begins next month. The Bulls signed two players in the fall, junior college forward/center Solomon Jones and guard Collin Dennis. USF expects to sign three next month.