MILWAUKEE - Maybe University of South Florida coach Stan Heath should have kicked his team out of its locker room weeks ago.
Even without starting guard Jesus Verdejo, the Bulls played their most inspired game of the season. USF nearly knocked off No. 17 Marquette before the Golden Eagles pulled away late for a 62-54 victory Tuesday.
"I hate to lose, but I want our team to have a good feeling about this effort," Heath said. "We played at a pace that was good for us. We were a lot smarter on offense, and our defense was like night and day."
USF (10-11, 1-7 Big East) only trailed 45-43 with 4:06 remaining when senior center Kentrell Gransberry (15 points, 15 rebounds) fouled out.
Following a USF turnover, Marquette's Wesley Matthews hit consecutive 3-pointers, giving MU a 52-43 cushion with 2:57 remaining. Dominique Jones (15 points, eight rebounds) then fouled out with 2:01 remaining, killing any late USF comeback hopes.
"When we lose our top two players, it's not like we're sitting there with an NBA-type bench," Heath said. "It's tough. It puts a lot of pressure on guys who have never been in that situation before. That handicaps us."
Heath moved the Bulls into a visiting Sun Dome locker room after Friday's practice because "they didn't get it." He said Tuesday's effort earned them the right to move back into their regular locker room "for the moment."
The Bulls' loss was their 24th consecutive in conference road games (0-for-20 in the Big East) and their 20th consecutive loss on the road to a ranked team. But for 36 minutes, the Bulls gave the Golden Eagles (15-4, 5-3) all they could handle.
"It was a tough fight with South Florida, as it is every time," Marquette coach Tom Crean said.
Verdejo, out with a bulging disc in his back, and two other reserves couldn't play, leaving USF with only nine players. After Orane Chin was USF's third player to foul out with 1:04 remaining, Heath told official Ed Hightower "I don't have anybody else, do you want me to play?"
The loss was the Bulls' seventh consecutive, but for the first time in the losing streak USF didn't lose by double digits.
"We definitely need to build on this," Heath said. "We're a hungry program and the guys competed that way. They played with the urgency we wanted, but down the stretch Marquette proved to be the better team."
Jones said when Heath moved USF out of its locker room, it was "a wake-up call."
"We're mad that we lost, but we can take good things from this," Jones said. "We can compete with a team that's supposed to be one of the best teams in the country. We now have the confidence we can compete."
The Bulls only shot 34.1 percent, but held Marquette to 38.8 percent shooting. MU's heralded guard Dominic Jones was limited to a career-low three points on 1-for-7 shooting.
"We have to play to our ability," USF point guard Chris Howard said. "Coach wants us to compete at the highest level we can. We played harder as team on the defensive end, that's what we've been lacking. There were still mental breakdowns at the end that hurt us.
"We just gave a much better effort on defense."
INSIDE THE GAME
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Senior Kentrell Gransberry had 15 points and 15 rebounds in only 29 minutes.
STAT OF THE GAME: In nine years at Marquette, Tom Crean is 7-0 against USF, his most wins without a loss against any school.
TURNING POINT: Trailing 45-43 with 4:06 remaining, Gransberry fouled out and MU closed on a 17-11 run.
UP NEXT: USF hosts St. John's on Saturday at 7 p.m.