PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — South Florida struggled at the free-throw line Saturday night, but managed to hit the four most important ones with only a few seconds left to hold off Bradley 61-57.
Chris Perry led South Florida (9-4) with 18 points and Victor Rudd added 16.
The Bulls (9-4) trailed by five points with less than five minutes left in the game before taking the lead for good on a pair of free throws by Corey Allen Jr. with a little over a minute left. Allen ended the game with 11 points. He made four key free throws in the final 1:15 to put the game out of reach. The Bulls shot only 54 percent (12-22) from the line, while Bradley shot 73 percent (8-11).
“Our best free-throw shooters got to the line there at the end,” said South Florida coach Stan Heath. “It was a good thing too, because we certainly had some problems there for most of the night.”
Walt Lemon Jr. led the Braves (5-8) with 17 points, while Tyshon Pickett added 16.
Lemon had an opportunity to tie the game at 59 with 12 seconds left when he went aggressively to the basket for a layup. The ball went in, but Lemon was charged with an offensive foul which resulted in a change of possession. Allen was then purposefully fouled with 10.5 seconds left and sank both shots to seal the win.
Saturday’s tight finish was just more of the same for a Bulls team that has been in close games all season.
“We’ve certainly been here before,” Heath said. “I could feel calmness in our team that last minute or so. A lot went well for us then. We played our best basketball of the night in the final five minutes.”
“I’m just glad these tight games are going well for us,” added Rudd, who leads the Bulls, averaging 16.1 points-per-game. “But I do get kind of nervous when I look up and see us behind so late in the game.”
The Bulls shot 49 percent from the field, compared to 42 percent for the Braves.
The Braves trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half before climbing back into the game. Lemon put Bradley up 30-28 for their first lead of the game on a monster dunk with under a minute left in the half.
Bradley coach Geno Ford was at a loss to explain his team’s poor play during December. The Braves went 0-6 for the month.
“It’s just untimely mistakes,” Ford said. “We’re good enough to win games like this, but we can’t seem to put it together. It’s frustrating. We played the right way, really hard. Our effort was plenty good enough to win, but we just couldn’t put it together at the end. It’s something we need to solve going into conference play.”
Heath gave Bradley credit. “They did a lot of things right tonight and, frankly, we were lucky to get out of here with a win,” he said. “Wins like this are tough to come by on the road.”
South Florida was again without starting point guard Anthony Collins, who averages six assists per game for the Bulls. Collins has missed the last three games with a lingering knee injury, after being sidelined for two games earlier in the season.
Bradley opens Missouri Conference play Wednesday at Northern Iowa, while South Florida hosts Memphis on Tuesday to open the American Athletic Conference schedule.
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