Verdejo, Bulls still keeping up groove

By JOE SMITH, Times Staff Writer
Published November 25, 2007

TAMPA - To Jesus Verdejo, there's a feeling reminiscent of his Arizona days.

The USF junior guard has seemingly fed off the freedom allowed in the offense under first-year coach Stan Heath, scoring in double figures four times in the first six games compared to seven in 22 games last year, his first full season since transferring from Arizona in 2005.

Case in point: Saturday night's 81-67 win over East Carolina in front of 2,992 at the Sun Dome.

Verdejo tied a career high with 20 points, including four 3-pointers in two critical spurts to help the Bulls pull away after blowing a 14-point first-half lead.

USF 3-3 has won three straight after starting the season 0-3. Verdejo was one of five Bulls in double figures.

"It's definitely different," Verdejo said. "Not last year, but coming from Arizona, that's the kind of offense we had: screen down, flare out ... you've gotta know how to play without the ball. I like that."

While Verdujo (12 points per game) has found his stroke, Heath has found that a zone defense may fit his team better than his man-to-man roots allowed him to initially realize.

The Bulls used their scrappy zone, pressuring East Carolina's guards with traps in the first half en route to a 28-14 lead. They got their hands in passing lanes. They swarmed East Carolina forward Gabe Blair (14 points). They turned turnovers into fastbreak points.

At times, the Bulls also got burned. East Carolina guard Sam Hinnant made all six 3-pointers in the first half; his last gave the Pirates (2-3) a one-point lead with less than a minute to go. That's when Verdejo sank two 3-pointers in 40 seconds, including a fadeaway shot from the left corner just before the buzzer to give the Bulls a three-point lead. Verdejo completed the feat again midway through the second half, hitting two 3s in 30 seconds to push a six-point lead to double digits.

East Carolina coach Mack McCarthy said his Pirates played "our best game," but the Bulls "had a lot of weapons;" USF freshmen Dominique Jones (11 points) and Orane Chin (17 points) and sophomore Chris Howard (12 points) each had their moments.

And in the second half, the Bulls did better defensively on Hinnant (25 points) and the Pirates, who missed their final seven 3-point shots.

In the process, Heath said he has had to "swallow my ego" and realize zone is the better fit.

"I've kind of kicked myself," Heath said. "We should have (gone to zone) earlier in the first couple games; I think we'd have some different outcomes."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com