TAMPA, Fla. – Eighteen years ago, Kenny Harris led the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball team to an improbable victory, coming back from 31 points down to defeat South Florida.
While it wasn't that large of a gap, the Black & Gold nearly did it again to USF, erasing an 18-point deficit to force overtime, but fell 60-59, to the Bulls on Wednesday night at the Sun Dome.
"I was really proud of the way our guys battled against a big, physical Big East team, particularly the last 30 minutes or so," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "Unfortunately, we just came up one bucket short or on the other end, one defensive stop short."
Unfortunately, the Black & Gold couldn't contain the big front line of South Florida, getting outrebounded 45-35 on the night, with Ron Anderson, Jr. leading the way with 13 boards, nine of which came on the offensive glass.
"Coach Heath really has a stable of bigs that can line up against any team in the Big East," Smart said. "I really thought we were so caught up in trying to keep the ball in the post that I thought it allowed their perimeter players to really hurt us with plays like the baseline drives."
Early on it was all South Florida as the Bulls ran out to a 28-10 advantage with under seven minutes to play in the first half behind 12 points from Hugh Robertson, including two three-pointers.
Freshman Rob Brandenberg would come off the bench to spark a VCU comeback that saw the Bulls limited to just two points over the final 6:47, while the Rams closed within 10 at 30-20 heading into the break.
South Florida extended its lead to 12 early in the second half, before Burgess took over, drilling three shots from beyond the arc to get the Rams within one at 40-39 with 10:20 left in regulation.
The Bulls would push their cushion back to six, but three late turnovers allowed VCU to take its first lead of the game when senior Joey Rodriguez connected on a three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining to give the Rams a 50-49 lead.
After Jawanza Poland reclaimed the lead on a three-point play, St. Petersburg, Fla. native Ed Nixon would thrill his large cheering section with a drive to the basket that sent the game to overtime at 52-52.
In the extra frame, South Florida would take a six-point lead but once again the Rams responded by climbing within one on three free-throws from Skeen after he drew an intentional foul on Augustus Gilchrist. After getting a stop in the halfcourt, the Black & Gold had a chance with just under 10 seconds to play, but Burgess' drive to the basket was just off the mark and sent VCU home on the wrong end of a 60-59 decision.
"We really had a great chance to come away with three wins against four BCS schools and I think we gave it away," Burgess said. "We can't let teams jump out to big leads like that and we can't get beat physically on the boards like we did. We have to refocus and get better for Saturday."
Saturday will bring the start of the conference season for the Black & Gold with a visit from the Tribe of William & Mary. The game, which will be televised on Comcast SportsNet, is set to tip at 12:06 p.m.