TAMPA, Fla. – The Stetson men’s basketball team shot 52.8 percent from the floor, and received a career-best 20-point effort from senior Willie Green, but it wasn’t enough as USF defeated the Hatters 72-63 at the Sun Dome on Friday night.
It was certainly the Hatters (0-5) best game yet, leading the still undefeated Bulls (4-0) by as many as six points in the second half, and holding a 61-60 advantage with just 4:30 to play in the contest. Although still winless on the season, Stetson head coach Corey Williams sees this effort as a step in the right direction.
“We’ve talked as a team that it’s one brick at a time to build this house, and that was a positive brick in what we’re trying to do as a basketball team,” Williams said after the game.
Stetson led for much of the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half thanks in large part to the offensive efficiency of Green, senior Aaron Graham, and junior Kentwan Smith.
Green bested his previous career best of 17 points with a game high 20 on 9-of-13 shooting from the field. Graham was dead on all night from the outside, scoring 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
“Willie, as a senior, he stepped up big for us,” Williams said of Green. “We got the ball on the block to him, and he was able to come through for us. He played a lot of minutes, and he was tired, but I had to play him. He responded very well. He responded like a senior’s supposed to respond. We’ve talked about those guys stepping up and being men…he was a man today.”
Smith, meanwhile, was getting things done for the Hatters all over the court. The 6-8 forward scored 12 points on 6-of-11 shooting, grabbed four rebounds, handed out five assists, blocked two shots, and picked up two steals.
“It takes a little while for the team to get comfortable with you, and figuring out what I want from them,” said Williams. “I’ve been preaching about relaxing and just playing, and tonight was most definitely our best shooting performance [because of that]. If we can continue to do that, we’re going to win a lot of ball games.”
After tying the game at 35-35 on Smith’s second thunderous dunk in four minutes, Stetson went into the break with momentum.
The Hatters used that momentum to open the second half on a 6-0 run on back-to-back possessions that saw Smith feed junior center Kyle Sikora for layups in the paint, and a third that Smith took into the paint for a driving layin himself. Stetson led 41-35 just two minutes into the second frame.
Stetson didn’t relinquish the lead until there was just 8:29 to play in the game when USF’s Martino Brock finished a put back off of a missed Bull three-pointer. Back-and-forth action continued until a layup by Green was countered by a pair of free throws by Zach Laday. The two points from the stripe gave USF a 62-61 advantage.
The Bulls benefited from 25 points off of turnovers, 20 of which came in the second half. Stetson turned the ball over just seven times in the first frame, but coughed it up 11 times in the final 20 minutes, leading to USF’s late charge.
“We competed, we did a lot of things well, but unfortunately at the end of the game we made some crucial turnovers that gave them some momentum,” Williams said. “I’m awfully proud of my team. I thought they fought, they competed, and they gave it everything they had.”
It wasn’t quite enough on Friday night against a very good USF club that plays in the newly formed American Athletic Conference with the likes of UConn, Louisville, and Memphis. The Bulls pulled away for the 72-63 lead and improved to 4-0 on the season.
Corey Allen, Jr. led USF with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the free throw line. The Bulls held a staggering 33-to-5 advantage in free throw attempts. USF took advantage, making 25-of-33 from the charity stripe after coming in shooting just 67 percent.
Stetson will conclude its eight-game road trip to start the season at the Gulf Coast Showcase next week. The Hatters open things up against Wagner on Monday, Nov. 25 at 6:00 p.m. from the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla.
Note: Aaron Graham’s three makes from beyond the arc give him 177 for his career. He is second all-time at Stetson for career three-pointers, and with four more makes he will become the all-time three-point leader in Stetson history.