By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – The Bulls continue to find ways to win despite injuries piling up at a rapid pace.
Jawanza Poland stepped up with 16 points and Martino Brock added 14 more to help USF escape the Sun Dome with a 61-57 victory over George Mason on Saturday despite losing star point guard Anthony Collins and Victor Rudd during the second half.
Collins was carted off on a stretcher with 10:30 to play after his head hit an opponent’s knee while going for a loose ball. Head coach Stan Heath said his sophomore was experiencing neck pain, but had sensation in his extremities and was expected to have more tests done at the hospital Saturday night.
“We’ll make sure when he gets back out there, whatever happens, he’s ready to go,” Heath said. “He’s in good care, that’s the most important thing.”
Rudd, arguably USF’s hottest player, suffered a concussion with less than a minute to play in what Heath called USF’s “most physical” game all season. The Bulls saw a 13-point lead in the second half shrink down to two with 33 seconds to play before improving to 8-3 and surpassing the non-conference win total from last season’s NCAA tournament team.
USF already was without Shaun Noriega, Kore White and JaVontae Hawkins because of injuries.
“I give our team a lot of credit because we could have folded and didn’t,” Heath said. “We fought like crazy on the defensive end and made some tough plays as well.”
Sherrod Wright scored a game-high 22 points but no other George Mason player made it to double figures as USF held an opponent to less than 60 points for the seventh time this season.
“We did some things defensively but they shut us down pretty good,” Patriots head coach Paul Hewitt said.
Saturday’s game started off in sluggish fashion with both teams combining to go 5-for-26 in the opening 10 minutes and both teams being tied at 22 by halftime. Brock and Poland had six points apiece for a USF team that went 9-for-27 and shot 16 percent from the free throw line.
USF was able to avoid a deficit by limiting George Mason to just nine field goals while the Patriots went 0-for-8 from 3-point range.
Starting off fast in the second half was a goal that the Bulls accomplished while the Patriots still couldn’t get it together on offense. Brock produced the go-ahead 3-pointer and Poland followed with another to spark a 12-0 run that was highlighted by consecutive alley-oop dunks from Rudd as USF grabbed a 34-24 lead.
“They took advantage of every lapse we had out there,” Hewitt said.
USF hit seven of its first 13 shots to open the second half with Musa Abdul-Aleem knocking down a jumper to give the Bulls a 40-29 advantage with less than 12 minutes to play. Abdul-Aleem finished with 11 points after making three of his four 3-point attempts.
A lengthy delay because of Collins’ injury put USF’s offense on pause, but the break didn’t cool off the Bulls shortly after. Brock hit a jumper seconds after play resumed and added two free throws to get USF’s lead back to 11 with 9:17 to play.
George Mason (7-5) trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half but found a way to keep things close near the end. Five straight points from Wright capped off a 10-2 run and cut USF’s lead to 51-46 with 3:03 remaining.
The pressure continued to mount for USF as Erick Copes’ three-point play with 1:18 remaining got the Patriots’ deficit down to four. Two free throws by Copes with 33 seconds to left got George Mason within two until Poland sank a pair of free throws two seconds later.
Pesky George Mason got a free throw from Corey Edwards with 23 seconds left to make it a three-point game before Poland ended the comeback with another pair of free throws and Brock dove on a loose ball with seven seconds to play.
USF was 6-for-17 at the free throw line before going 10-for-10 in the final two minutes to lock up its seventh win at home in nine tries this season.
“As bad as we were, it was good to see us when it was clutch time step up and make them,” Heath said.
The shorthanded Bulls shoot for their fourth straight win 8 p.m. Wednesday when they wrap up their non-conference slate at UCF. USF begins Big East play at home on Sunday, Jan. 6 when it hosts Syracuse at noon.
- Heath said White is dealing with turf toe and is questionable for USF’s second battle with UCF. Noriega and Hawkins aren’t expected to play.
- The Bulls are 7-2 at home this season and have won their past five games at the Sun Dome.
- George Mason is 2-17 against programs that are currently playing in the Big East.
- Heath is now seven wins away from 200 in his career. Heath has 81 victories with the Bulls.
- Saturday marked the first meeting between USF and George Mason.