DAYTON, Ohio — Ugly, ugly, ugly. Just the way South Florida likes it.
The Bulls introduced the NCAA tournament to the Big East’s nastiest defense Wednesday night, putting more than just a chill into a California team that had never seen anything like it. The Bulls allowed only 13 points in the first half and brushed their way to a 65-54 victory.
South Florida (21-13) will play No. 5 seed Temple in Nashville on Friday, a matchup of teams known for gritty defense. Few have been better than this one for the first 20 minutes on the NCAA stage.
The Bulls swarmed ‘em, bumped em’ and swatted their shots away — those that weren’t air balls, that is.
California (24-10) didn’t score over the last 8:55 of the first half, missing 10 shots and turning it over twice while South Florida pulled ahead 36-13.
Guard Jorge Gutierrez, the Pac-12 player of the year, was held to 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting.
It wasn’t all defense that got it done for South Florida. Freshman point guard Anthony Collins, a thin-built player with a youthful face that reminds coach Stan Heath of a 12-year-old kid, played like a star in his first NCAA tournament game, scoring 12 points. Victor Rudd had 15 points
The Golden Bears won’t soon forget the way they got worked over. They must have felt as if there were six Bulls on the floor at times playing defense.
No, only five. The refs counted.
The Bulls set a Big East record by giving up only 56.9 points per game this season. Their problem: They score about as many points as they give up. South Florida didn’t have a player average in double figures for the season.
Realizing he didn’t have many scoring options, Heath instituted the defense-first, defense-last philosophy that got them to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years and, now, their first win. The Bulls came in 0-2 in the tournament.
Other teams exult when one of their players hits a big basket. The Bulls cheer from the bench as the other team passes the ball around helplessly and hopelessly.
They were cheering their defense from the opening tip.
The first time down the court, Gutierrez forced a running shot that was too hard, a taste of the misery ahead. California missed its first five shots and eight of its first nine, helping South Florida pull ahead 15-3.
Collins made a driving layup, a floater, a 15-foot pull-up jumper and a layup off his steal during the opening run, getting South Florida’s unpredictable offense moving.