Now it's officially a rivalry.
The University of South Florida Bulls, alternating between spectacular in opening a 13-point lead and consistently clutch down the stretch, downed the Central Florida Knights 65-56 on Wednesday night at the UCF Arena. It resoundingly avenged a dismal 18-point opening-game defeat in Tampa.
"We were a much different team tonight," Bulls coach Stan Heath said. "We felt really bad after letting our fans down on opening night. Our guys were really focused."
USF (9-3), winner of four straight games, opens Big East Conference play on Sunday afternoon at home against the No. 7-ranked Syracuse Orange (13-1), who defeated Rutgers 78-53 on Wednesday night.
Bulls sophomore point guard Anthony Collins, who was doubtful after suffering a neck sprain Saturday night against George Mason, played his best game of the season. He had 16 points — including 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 55 seconds — and 10 assists and just three turnovers in 37 minutes of play.
Senior guard Jawanza Poland had a team-high 18 points, including three dunks. Junior forward Victor Rudd, coming off a late-game concussion Saturday night, had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
"It was great having the little guy (Collins) in there because he makes us go, he's our engine," Heath said. "Rudd, we didn't have him cleared until this morning because he was still suffering from concussion syndrome.
"It was a little unsettling not knowing who would play. Without those two guys, I don't know what would've happened."
The Knights (9-4), who will join USF in the Big East next season, rallied from a 13-point deficit and tied the game at 53 on Isaiah Sykes' free throw with 2:29 remaining. The crowd was involved, and UCF seemed ready to pounce on the shorthanded Bulls.
After Collins made the front end of a one-and-one, giving USF a one-point advantage, senior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick hit the game's biggest shot, a 3-pointer with 1:07 remaining that put the Bulls up 57-53.
From there, UCF rushed its shots and couldn't cash in. USF iced it with free throws.
USF led 28-27 at halftime, but the game's early flow was schizophrenic.
The Bulls got off to a nice start, assuming a 19-12 lead with 8:37 left in the first half on a two-handed dunk by Poland, who was located running toward the basket on Collins' bounce pass.
Then everything went cold for USF.
The Knights went on a 15-0 run, roaring ahead 27-19 during a six-minute stretch in which the Bulls missed seven consecutive field-goal attempts and couldn't adjust to UCF's zone defense.
But just when USF was entering a danger zone, it found some long-range shooting touch.
Sophomore guard Musa Abdul-Aleem, who didn't play in the opener against UCF because of a foot injury, hit a pair of 3-pointers from the corner, both times getting a kick-out pass from Collins, who drew in the defense with drives.
The Bulls had the half's final possession and made it count when Fitzpatrick made a 3-pointer from the top of the key, again working off a pass from Collins, providing USF a 28-27 lead just moments after the game threatened to teeter out of control.
USF's trio of game-altering 3-pointers came after the Bulls had missed their first seven shots from beyond the arc.