Up by nine, USF fades quietly

The Bulls' worst start in 20 years is punctuated by a bad second half in front of a mere 255 fans in Daytona Beach.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

DAYTONA BEACH - At least there weren't many people at the Ocean Center to witness another frustrating loss for Stan Heath and USF on Friday.

Playing to a weekday afternoon crowd of 255, the Bulls lost a nine-point second-half lead with a late collapse, falling 74-67 to Rhode Island to drop to a humbling 0-3, USF's worst start in 20 years.

"We've just got to find ways to close games when we have the lead," said Bulls point guard Chris Howard, who had 16 points and six assists but four second-half turnovers. "I really believe we were a better team tonight, we just didn't have enough to finish it."

The Bulls led 34-27 at the half, getting a double double from center Kentrell Gransberry, and things looked good when URI forward Will Daniels got his fourth foul with 16:50 to play.

But USF, up 36-27 early in the second, didn't extend its lead, missing five free throws. After a technical on coach Jim Baron, the Rams (3-0) went on a 19-6 run, getting eight straight points from guard Jimmy Baron, the coach's son who finished with 17.

The Bulls got within five with 3:25 to play, but URI pulled away, giving USF its third loss by seven points or fewer. The Bulls hadn't opened 0-3 since the 1987 season, when they finished 6-22.

"I thought we played a lot better, but unfortunately, when you're up eight or nine points, with a chance to extend it, you have to get stops and finish plays around the basket," said Heath, who was pleased to see only 16 turnovers but disappointed by 57 percent free-throw shooting. "We've got to mature and start making those kinds of plays."

Between the afternoon tipoff and USF's home football game against Louisville today, the Bulls had literally dozens of fans in the Ocean Center. USF didn't play to fewer than 2,114 fans last season; it was the Bulls' smallest crowd in at least five years, and the last time they played to fewer than 1,000, they could at least say they were in Hawaii, with 434 watching the Bulls against Oregon State in 2005.

Gransberry had 16 points and 14 rebounds, but went 6-for-16 shooting, putting him at 30 percent in his two games. Guard Jesus Verdejo, who led the Bulls at 17.5 points a game coming in, was held to one point, going 0-for-6 from the field.

"It's about mental toughness as a team," Howard said. "Coach Heath said at halftime they were going to make a run, but we have to stay strong and find ways to bounce back after they make their run. That has to be a team goal for the next two games."

One bright spot for USF in the Glenn Wilkes Classic was freshman forward Orane Chin, who had 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks off the bench.

USF returns at noon today to face Florida Atlantic, which lost to Rhode Island by 27 last week.

"It's important for us to put this behind us," Heath said. "Florida Atlantic is not going to be an easy game, and we can't carry our disappointment into the game (today)."

ON SALE: Tickets for the Jan. 20 game against West Virginia at the St. Pete Times Forum go on sale today at the Forum box office and all Ticketmaster outlets, or call (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100.