By Kevin Sweeney
“This is the start of something new.”
Those were the words of LaQuincy Rideau, moments after his South Florida Bulls clinched the CBI title with a 77-65 win over DePaul Friday night. The win capped a historic season for the USF program, setting a record for wins in a season and completing the largest win turnaround in the nation in year two under head coach Brian Gregory.
Gregory inherited a program that had hit rock bottom, having lost 20 games or more in four consecutive seasons. He quickly went to work rebuilding the roster that first offseason, and the players he landed then led this year’s team to new heights. The top four scorers on this year’s team came from that recruiting class in a trio of prep recruits in David Collins, Alexis Yetna, and Justin Brown along with Gardner-Webb transfer LaQuincy Rideau.
“Two years ago, we brought in this class without any evidence that we could win,” Gregory said, “This is a springboard [for us].”
Perhaps it’s only fitting that it was guys from that incoming class that played the biggest roles tonight. Specifically, it was Collins and Rideau that stepped up, just as they have all season long.
“As a sophomore and a junior, they are our leaders, our toughest kids,” Gregory said. “We were going to live and die with them.”
They certainly lived on that duo tonight. After a hot start that saw the Bulls open up a lead that ballooned to as many as 17 with 6:15 to go in the first half, DePaul went on a massive run keyed by their defense to close the half. USF did not score again until the final possession of the first half, and the Blue Demons used the free throw line to get back into the ball game. In all, it was a 14-0 run that ignited the rowdy home crowd and swung momentum squarely in favor of DePaul.
However, the Bulls were able to take back a little momentum with a tough layup by Rideau as the buzzer sounded to conclude the first half. That bucket pushed their lead to two possessions and ended the seemingly-endless scoring drought.
DePaul would cut continue to cut into the deficit in the early stages of the second half, and even had a chance to take the lead when Femi Olujobi went to the line with the Blue Demons trailing by one with 16:41 to go in the ballgame, but the senior big man missed both free throws to keep USF on top. The Bulls then went on a quick 6-0 run to push the lead back up to seven, and the score would never be within one possession again.
The Blue Demons continued to try to make a push, but just couldn’t string together enough buckets to turn the corner. Chief among those struggles was senior guard Max Strus, who shot just 2-16 from the field. Strus came into the game averaging 28 points per game in the tournament, but was suffocated defensively by Justin Brown and TJ Lang.
“You can’t give him anything easy, he’s so good,” Gregory said of Strus. “If you give him something easy, all the sudden the hard ones go in.”
Meanwhile, Collins sealed the deal with clutch bucket after clutch bucket down the stretch. The biggest dagger came with 5:47 to go in the contest, as Collins banked in a triple with the shot clock about to expire despite being fouled by Devin Gage. That shot gave South Florida a 13-point lead and dealt a huge blow to any comeback hopes for the Blue Demons.
Collins, who was named the tournament MVP, led the way for USF with 19 points. Brown posted 12, while Rideau stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals.
Perhaps most importantly, all three of those players will return next year for the Bulls as they look to climb the American Conference ladder.
“We were 0-7 against the top four teams in the league,” Gregory said. Our job now is to take that next step.”
With a core like this in place and the experience from a deep postseason run, the program certainly looks to be on the right track in doing just that.