Verdejo scores 21, USF upsets No. 8 Marquette

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—South Florida’s Stan Heath gave his players two days off to rejuvenate themselves mentally and physically, and the Bulls responded with a performance that gave the coach some peace of mind.

Jesus Verdejo scored 21 points and Dominique Jones hit a go-ahead layup with 15.9 seconds to go Friday night, giving USF a 57-56 upset of No. 8 Marquette and ending a 32-game losing skid against opponents ranked in the top 10.

The Bulls (8-14, 3-7 Big East) had been 0-5 against ranked teams this season and had never knocked off anyone higher than No. 15.

Heath canceled practice Monday and Tuesday, hoping the break following a stretch in which the Bulls lost seven of nine would refresh the players for Marquette (20-3, 9-1). Jones said the coach needed a win as much as they did.

“We gave up a couple of games that we were supposed to win and you can tell by the look of his face that it kind of broke his heart,” Jones said. “We felt like getting this win would lift him up and give our team confidence to keep moving.”

The victory before a crowd of 5,316 at the Sun Dome snapped Marquette’s 12-game winning streak—the Eagles’ longest since 2001-02 when they were in Conference USA—and left the Big East without an unbeaten team in conference play.

“We kept telling each other, ‘Just be focused. Keep playing as a team, keep believing in each other,”’ Verdejo said.

USF, who had been 0-32 against top 10 teams, improved to 9-79 all-time against ranked opponents. Marquette became the highest ranked team to lose to them since No. 15 Tulane fell to USF at home on Feb. 24, 1992.

“It’s very special, one of the more special wins I’ve ever had in may career,” said Heath who had successful stints at Kent State and Arkansas before moving to USF. “I don’t want this to be the last one. I want to have more conversations like this in the future.”

The Bulls led by as many as 10, but needed nine points from Verdejo in a five-minute span of the second half to keep the Eagles from taking over the game.

Marquette’s Wesley Matthews missed a short bank shot and Lazar Hayward’s putback rolled off the rim as time expired, dropping the Eagles into second in the Big East behind No. 1 Connecticut.

“At the end, I’m really surprised that shot didn’t go in,” Heath said. “He had a close tip.”

Jerel McNeal led Marquette with 22 points before fouling out in the final minute. Dominic James and Matthews had 11 apiece, however the cold-shooting Eagles hurt themselves by going 4-for-24 on 3-point attempts and 10-of-23 from the foul line.

“That’s as poor as we have played,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “They earned the victory. We earned the loss.”

Jones finished with 15 for USF, but his inability to make free throws in the last minute ensured Marquette would have a chance to win at the buzzer. The Bulls’ leading scorer with an 18.3-point average missed the front end of a 1-and-1 after McNeal drew his fifth foul with 54.1 seconds left, then failed to complete a three-point play on the basket that put USF up for good.

Marquette rallied from a 10-point deficit to trail 32-28 at the half. The Eagles used a 13-4 run to go up 47-42 with just over eight minutes left, but Verdejo scored South Florida’s next 11 points to keep the Bulls close.

“We never give up. We never quit. We always keep fighting,” Verdejo said. “Now teams have got to know that whenever they come to the Sun Dome, they’re going to have a fight for 40 minutes.”

James was 1-for-9 from behind the arc and reserve Maurice Acker was 0-for-3, with his biggest miss coming on an open 3 that USF rebounded and turned into Jones’ go-ahead layup. Marquette shot 38.9 percent overall.

“They did a great job defensively, changing things up. We struggled to get in a rhythm,” Williams said. “We were much better in the second half on both ends of the floor, but it’s hard to win games when you shoot the way we did.”

McNeal has scored at least 20 in seven consecutive games and moved ahead of Butch Lee into second place on Marquette’s career scoring with 1,753 points—20 behind the school record of 1,773 set by George Thompson from 1966-69.

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