TAMPA – The Bulls got the confidence boost they've been looking for Monday night.
Jawanza Poland scored a team-high 13 points in his season debut and the USF men's basketball team handed Cleveland State its first road loss of the season by a 70-55 margin before a crowd of 2,942 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"I think we grew up quite a bit today. I thought we gained a lot of confidence," head coach Stan Heath said. "This was a huge confidence builder for this team."
Poland had missed all USF's previous 11 games with an injury and exploded in the second half, scoring all of his points in a total of 27 minutes.
"Once I hit the one shot, I got in a groove and my teammates gave me all the confidence," the junior guard said.
Poland's teammates helped on the scoring end as well with three other Bulls finishing in double figures. Augustus Gilchrist posted 12 points, three shy of reaching 1,000 in his career at USF. Ron Anderson Jr. and Anthony Collins each added 11 to help USF improve to 7-5.
Tim Kamczyc had a game-high 14 points for a 10-2 Cleveland State team that had beaten No. 7 Vanderbilt on the road earlier this season.
"We just beat a very good basketball team tonight," Heath said.
A strong defensive effort helped USF grab a 25-21 halftime lead after a hot start by Cleveland State.
The Vikings led by as many as six early on, but went 9 minutes, 7 seconds without a basket while the Bulls went on a 10-0 run to take a 23-19 lead with about 2 minutes remaining before the break.
The game-changer was USF's successful switch from a man to zone defense, according to Heath.
"I thought the zone really took them out of rhythm, made them stand around a little bit longer and it played to our strength," he said.
The Vikings briefly re-took the lead right after the break by going on a 5-0 run until Anderson Jr. answered with a layup and free throw shot to get USF back ahead, 28-27. That started a 13-3 run for the Bulls, powered by five points from Poland and a 3-pointer from Gilchrist.
Both Poland and Gilchrist really heated up from there, scoring 10 of the Bulls' next 14 points that helped pump their lead up to 52-38 with about 10 minutes remaining.
Gilchrist was the first USF player in double figures with 10 during the stretch after only posting two points in the first half.
"He was just being a little more aggressive," Heath said. "I thought in the second half he got fouled more. He got to the free throw line and he finished some plays around the basket strong."
Poland was scoreless before the break and also reached the 10-point mark during the first 10 minutes of the second period.
"Once Jawanza gets going, he's like that heater in the basement. Once he gets hot it starts blowing steam out," Heath said.
USF never let its lead dip below 10 points the rest of the way before improving to 3-0 at the St. Pete Times Forum this season.
"Coach has really been preaching our intensity and focus for 40 minutes. Tonight was the first time all five guys (went) for the whole 40 minutes at one time," Anderson Jr. said.
USF will look to build off the big win on the road Thursday when it plays at Southern Miss at 8 p.m.