All season long, University of South Florida coach Stan Heath has talked about his confidence in freshman point guard Anthony Collins.
Sunday afternoon, with USF fighting to preserve its flip-of-the-coin NCAA Tournament hopes, Heath put that belief on display.
Suddenly down by one point to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the final seconds, Heath disdained a time out and allowed Collins to create a game-winning opportunity. Collins alertly drove inside and drew a foul. Then he drained two free throws with 3.2 seconds remaining, giving USF a riveting 46-45 Big East Conference victory against Cincinnati before 6,784 fans at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
USF moved to 18-11 overall and 11-5 in the Big East, tied with Georgetown for fourth place, with two regular-season games remaining. The Bulls, who are 14-1 at home venues with five home wins by three points or less, already had clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Cincinnati (20-9, 10-6) had its three-game winning streak halted.
"Anthony Collins is just playing incredible,'' Heath said. "I don't know how to explain it. He doesn't play like a freshman. He doesn't act like a freshman. But he sure makes things happen on the court for us.
"That's the trust I have in our team and him just to say, 'Don't even worry about the time out. Just go down there and make something happen.' He's smart enough to figure it out, get fouled and coolly knock down two free throws.''
As for Collins, in his typical slack-jawed manner, he didn't overanalyze the situation.
"Coach trusts me and my teammates trust me,'' said Collins, who had a game-high 14 points. "So I just go with it.''
Once again, USF's defense was the overall story.
For the sixth consecutive game, the Bulls held an opponent to at least 20 points under their season scoring average (Cincinnati came in at 69.8 points per game). The Bearcats shot just 34 percent from the field and made only three of their 15 attempts from 3-point range.
"It's Sunday morning in a hockey arena,'' said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, whose team was coming off a win against No. 17-ranked Louisville, which USF will face Wednesday night on the road. "I didn't think we were going to make shots to be honest with you. I think we needed to stop (USF from getting) the ball from going into the paint. That's why we lost the game. It's our fault for letting them get it there.''
Two of USF's biggest plays down the stretch were provided by inside players.
Moments after Cincinnati took a four-point lead, its largest of the game, junior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick buried a 3-pointer with 2:23 remaining, pushing USF ahead 42-41.
Again trailing by one point, Collins worked it inside to senior forward Ron Anderson Jr., who was fouled with 26.3 seconds remaining (and one tick left on the shot clock). Anderson's one-and-one attempt hit the back iron, bounced straight up … and in. Then he swished the second.
"I was saying a lot of prayers at that time (on Anderson's first free throw) and I got a good answer, too,'' Heath said. "It was a good bounce for us. Whatever rims we're using here, we're going to take them over to the (renovated) Sun Dome (next season) because they seem to be working.''
"It was the craziest bounce of my career,'' Anderson said. "I'm glad it went in my favor.''
USF's advantage was erased by Cincinnati's Cashmere Wright, who threw in a runner with 9.5 seconds remaining, but that was just the cue for Collins to win the game and extend the Bulls' postseason case.
Are the Bulls an NCAA Tournament team?
"I'm not on the selection committee,'' Cronin said. "I'm rooting for them because Stan Heath is a great guy. … But I'm oblivious, to be honest with you. I don't watch any of those shows. I don't know anybody's numbers. I know nothing. I can't even get my team to stop the ball from going into the paint with the game on the line. The last thing I can do is tell you who should be in.''
"Before today, we were definitely on the outside looking in,'' Heath said. "Everybody kept talking about this is the part of their schedule that's either going to make or break them. The first leg, the first step, we passed. … We still need some wins. I still feel like winning down the stretch is going to be the answer to the questions.''