TAMPA — In a soft postgame voice, University of South Florida senior forward Victor Rudd delivered the hard facts.
“We had the game won,’’ Rudd said.
Then it slipped away.
USF presented the University of Central Florida Knights with one final opportunity on Saturday afternoon at the Sun Dome — and UCF cashed in.
Knights senior guard Isaiah Sykes, freed up from Rudd by a screen from 310-pound Justin McBride, feathered his way into the lane and rolled in a short left-handed runner with 1.8 seconds remaining, giving last-place UCF a heart-stopping 75-74 victory against the Bulls.
Sykes’ shot was grazed by USF center John Egbunu, but it had enough trajectory to land on the rim, bounce three times and flutter through the net.
USF senior Martino Brock went off the back iron with his desperation half-court attempt on the final play, leaving the 5,294 fans limp with exhaustion.
“It was a heartbreaker game,’’ Bulls coach Stan Heath said. “Morale wise, those guys are going to hurt and they should. I am, too. But it’s only part of the season. We have to battle back.’’
The Bulls (12-14, 3-10 American Athletic Conference) will take a three-game losing streak into Tuesday night’s game at No. 13-ranked Louisville. UCF (10-13, 2-10) snapped a nine-game losing streak after capturing its first victory since Jan. 4.
USF had several positives. It shot 49.1 percent overall and was 6-for-17 from 3-point range, a drastic improvement for America’s worst team from behind the arc. Brock was omnipresent off the bench with 21 points, tying his USF career high, on 9-for-12 shooting. Rudd added 21 points and nine rebounds.
But in the end, the Bulls couldn’t keep up with Sykes (27 points) and McBride (13 points, five rebounds), a freshman who was playing in only his seventh game after returning from a preseason knee injury.
“He (McBride) changed the game,’’ Rudd said.
The Bulls seemingly took control with Brock tied it on a layup with 1:17 remaining, was fouled by UCF’s Staphon Blair and hit the free throw, putting USF up 74-73. When the Knights missed twice on the other end, Brock grabbed the rebound.
But USF faltered on its possession. Rudd was denied the ball. Point guard Shemiye McLendon, the second option, drove the lane and had a good look, but he fumbled the ball and the shot went awry with 27 seconds remaining.
It became UCF’s game to win — and the Knights did just that.
USF wanted to trap Sykes in the corner, but there was a defensive mixup. McBride’s screen allowed Sykes to run free and create.
“We wanted to let him (Sykes) read it,’’ UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “Kind of like handing the ball to your running back and letting him make a play. He went through traffic, was able to get a nice shot off the rim and it finally went down for us.’’
With back-to-back games against nationally ranked opponents (Louisville on Tuesday, then No. 24 Connecticut at home on Feb. 26), the Bulls face an uphill battle in getting to an overall winning record and working to sixth place in the AAC, thus avoided a first-round game in the league tournament.
For Saturday afternoon, though, Heath seemed pleased that the Bulls displayed a better effort than Wednesday night’s 83-40 loss at UConn, when USF shot 24 percent.
“Hopefully, my kids answered the questions about whether they were going to fight and battle,’’ Heath said. “I basically challenged our seniors, called them out and they responded in a big way. They did what they were supposed to do.’’
In the end, though, the Bulls didn’t do quite enough.
UCF (10-13) — Spurlock 5-11 5-7 16, Blair 6-6 0-0 12, Sykes 11-24 4-5 27, Newell 1-3 2-4 5, Goodwin 1-3 0-0 2, Walker 0-1 0-0 0, McCrory 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-2 0-0 0, Haney 0-1 0-0 0, Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, McBride 5-6 3-4 13. Totals 29-57 14-20 75.
SOUTH FLORIDA (12-14) — Rudd 6-11 7-8 21, LeDay 0-0 1-2 1, Egbunu 3-5 2-3 8, Allen Jr. 2-5 0-0 6, McLendon 1-4 0-0 2, Brock 9-12 3-3 21, Abdul-Aleem 1-8 0-0 3, Heath 1-2 0-0 3, Hawkins 0-0 2-2 2, Perry 3-6 1-2 7, Omogbehin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-53 16-20 74.
Halftime—South Florida 38-34. 3-Point Goals—UCF 3-9 (Newell 1-1, Sykes 1-1, Spurlock 1-3, Haney 0-1, Walker 0-1, Williams 0-2), South Florida 6-17 (Allen Jr. 2-4, Rudd 2-5, Heath 1-2, Abdul-Aleem 1-6). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—UCF 30 (Spurlock 8), South Florida 31 (Rudd 9). Assists—UCF 16 (Sykes 5), South Florida 14 (Allen Jr. 4). Total Fouls—UCF 15, South Florida 13. A—5,294.