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USF finds right punch

Flurry of efforts erase early deficit, sends Bulls ahead in C-USA tourney.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- With its only hope of advancing to the NCAA Tournament resting on winning its conference tournament, the South Florida men's basketball team was in the biggest fight of its season against DePaul Wednesday afternoon.

It turned out like a 12-round middleweight bout.

B.B. Waldon delivered the heavy blows to the midsection, Altron Jackson threw a punch to the head, Jimmy Baxter came in and delivered late jabs and Cedric Smith finished off DePaul with the knockout punch.

With 36 seconds remaining and the Bulls clinging to a 59-57 lead, Smith converted four free throws in the final 17 seconds to help South Florida seal a come-from-behind 63-59 victory in the first round of the Conference USA tournament in front of 6,206 at Freedom Hall.

The Bulls play Charlotte (18-10) at 1 p.m. today in the quarterfinals. South Florida (18-12) never has advanced beyond the quarterfinal round.

"I'm just really proud of our team," South Florida coach Seth Greenberg said. "We really wanted to play the aggressor and in the first eight minutes we really couldn't get anything done. ... When we were down by 14, we could have cashed it in. Cedric Smith kept us in the game in the first eight minutes. We had so many different people contribute. That's what we talked about, everyone being ready to step up."

Leading by six at halftime, DePaul opened a 34-24 lead with 17:46 remaining. But a basket and subsequent free throw by Jackson became the catalyst for the Bulls' comeback run.

Having gone scoreless in the first half for the first time this season, Jackson scored 20 in the second half. He hit three-pointers, fall-away jumpers and shots in the lane. And it seemed DePaul could do nothing to stop him.

"He made a lot of good shots, even with people on him," DePaul coach Pat Kennedy said.

"I know if my teammates give me the ball, I can score the quick six or eight points," said Jackson, who was 6-of-7 from the field in the final 9:52.

Led by Jackson and Waldon, whose 14 first-half points helped keep the Bulls in the game, South Florida went on an 11-0 run to take a 35-34 lead with 14:25 remaining.

"My job was to step up and make big-time plays while Altron was struggling with his shot," said Waldon, who had a game-high 22 points and eight rebounds.

From there, the teams battled and exchanged baskets, tying again at 41 when Lance Williams scored for DePaul with 8:09 left.

With Waldon out of the game (he missed nearly nine minutes of the second half after getting poked in the eye), the Bulls needed somebody to help carry the load.

In stepped the freshman Baxter, a former Boca Ciega star. With the Bulls leading 43-41, Baxter hit two three-pointers and assisted on a slam dunk by Jackson, part of an 8-0 Bulls run.

"I thought the first one was luck and then he hit that second one and I was like, yeah, that's what we need," Jackson said.

Greenberg said coming into the tournament he believed his team capable of winning four games in four days to earn the tournament title. The key, he said, was the first game. "We've been through a trying season, but they are a resilient group and I really think we've got a chance to do something special," Greenberg said.

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