tampabay.com

Shocker gives USF first Big East win

By GREG AUMAN
Published March 5, 2006


TAMPA - This season wasn't the entrance USF had hoped to make into Big East basketball. But as exits go, the Bulls found a memorable way to end their first season in the league, with unexpected excitement, with momentum, with hope.

For two months, the Bulls found out the hard way what life in the Big East was like. But after a school-record 17 losses in a row, after night after night of close-but-not-quite, USF and a Sun Dome crowd of 6,088 got their first taste Saturday of what it's like to win a Big East game.

"After all the losses, you forget how it feels to win," senior guard James Holmes said after scoring 10 in his final game.

"To see everybody celebrating, see guys jumping up and down, it's definitely a long time coming."

The Bulls, getting a career-high 23 points on 9-for-10 shooting from senior center Solomon Jones, knocked off No.20 Georgetown 63-56, ending a long season on a much-needed positive note. USF (7-22, 1-15) also avoided finishing with the worst record in the program's history.

"We wanted to win for the seniors, and any time things are going badly, you want to find something positive," coach Robert McCullum said. "We talked about what a win could do for us, having some momentum to carry over to next season.

"We can build on this."

USF lost eight league games by seven points or fewer, and after leading nearly the entire way, the Bulls wouldn't let this one slip away. With USF up 49-48 with 5:46 to play, Jones hit two free throws and guard Chris Capko got a steal, drove the court and found Jones for a dunk and a five-point lead.

Georgetown would never get closer than three points, with Capko and Jones each hitting two free throws in the final minute to seal the win.

"Guys came out and just laid it all on the floor," said Jones, who had 17 in the second half and finished with nine rebounds and two blocks. "We played our best basketball against ranked teams. We can play with these guys at this level."

Just six weeks ago, Georgetown (19-8, 10-6) knocked off No.1 Duke, and coach John Thompson III said USF's play gave his team a reminder that the any-given-night corollary works both ways.

"If we play well, we can beat any team in the country. But if we don't, we can lose to any team," said Thompson, who got a team-high 11 points from guard Ashanti Cook and forward Brandon Bowman. "It's not the time of year for that kind of effort."

Georgetown came in averaging nearly 20 3-point attempts, but the Bulls' perimeter defense took that away as the Hoyas set season lows in attempts (four) and made (two). USF shot 57.7 percent, its second-best mark this season, and matched a season high with 18 assists.

Saturday's farewell was driven by the Bulls' two seniors, but returning players had key roles in the victory as well. Junior Melvin Buckley hit four of USF's six 3-pointers for his 12 points but watched the last 7:49 from the bench.

In his place, junior McHugh Mattis got a three-point play to break a 44-44 tie. Capko, the walk-on who stepped in as a starter when the Bulls' point guard was lost before the season to a knee injury, had four assists and zero turnovers in 23 minutes.

Before McCullum came to USF, the Bulls had gone a decade without beating a ranked opponent.

USF has now done that three times in the past year. Last season, when USF nearly missed the Conference USA tournament, the Bulls upset a ranked Charlotte team in the regular-season finale then pulled off two upsets in the conference tournament.

Holmes and Jones said they hoped Saturday's upset could have a lingering effect on the underclassmen, a level of confidence they wouldn't have had if they'd endured the worst Big East season since Miami went 0-18 in 1993-94. "It helps turn the corner," Holmes said. "We've competed all year. But now you know you can beat these guys. We've won one game now, and hopefully it can continue."