TAMPA – The Bulls gave head coach Stan Heath a birthday gift he’ll never forget Tuesday night.
A pair of free throw shots by Victor Rudd and Anthony Collins wound up making the difference in USF’s 68-66 double-overtime victory over Florida Gulf Coast University that featured a dramatic finished before a crowd of 4,105 at the Sun Dome.
FGCU’s Jamail Jones found Chase Fieler on a fullcourt inbound pass, but Fieler’s potential game-tying basket as the buzzer sounded was waved off by referees after a lengthy replay. The Eagles inbounded the ball with 0.3 seconds remaining and had to tip it in for the basket to count per NCAA rules.
“Once he caught it and shot it the rule is the rule,” Heath said. “They were very clear to me before the play happened that they had to tip it. There was no chance they could catch and shoot that ball.”
Heath, who turned 49 on Tuesday, sported a smile after the Bulls found a way to deliver their third consecutive two-point win. USF (7-2) edged George Mason and Alabama in the first week of December before having a nine-day layoff because of exams.
“We found a way to get a win,” Heath said. “When you’re coming out of exams and you’ve got a long layover you never know how your team is going to be. When you play a good opponent and you get the win you have to leave here happy.”
Victor Rudd scored seven of his team-high 23 points in overtime after his alley-oop dunk put the Bulls in a position to take it in regulation. Rudd’s thunderous slam spotted USF a 55-53 lead with 52 seconds remaining, but Bernard Thompson’s jumper with 29 seconds left forced the first overtime.
The teams combined for four points in the first overtime and USF found itself ahead, 66-61, with 29 seconds in the second overtime period before the Eagles made their final push. Rudd, who finished with 14 rebounds, made a free throw to extend the lead to 67-63 with 9 seconds remaining and FGCU answered by with a 3-pointer by Thompson with just a second left.
Anthony Collins added USF’s final free throw but missed his second attempt to set up FGCU’s final play with 0.3 seconds remaining. Jones found a way to get the inbound pass over 7-foot-3 Jordan Omogbehin, but the Bulls knew another tie was unlikely once Fieler set his feet to shoot.
“It was an unbelievable catch and an unbelievable shot,” Heath said. “If it was 0.4 (seconds) we were in trouble.”
Heath admitted the Bulls “shouldn’t have been in that position” after going 7-for-20 from the free throw line, but USF was able to walk away with another confidence-building win after getting key performances from its freshman big men.
John Egbunu finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, while Chris Perry added 10 points and nine rebounds to help the Bulls continue on their best start since the 2009-10 season. Perry came through in the clutch in the first overtime with a layup that tied things up at 57 with 36 remaining.
“I was very pleased. We made some critical plays on both ends,” Heath said. “When we need stops, we got stops. When we needed a big basket different guys stepped up.”
FGCU (5-5) got a game-high 32 points from Thompson and Fieler finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Nate Hicks grabbed 19 rebounds to help the Eagles finish with a 51-43 edge on the glass.
USF plays its second home game of the Las Vegas Classic 7 p.m. Thursday against Florida A&M. Purchase tickets HERE.