Louis Dabney knew something was wrong when Jonathan Stark signaled to the bench that he needed a breather.
The Tulane men’s basketball team was barely two minutes into its game against South Florida on Sunday, and Stark, who averaged more minutes (37.1) than any other player in Conference USA last season, appeared spent.
“He was sick,” Dabney said. “He was real sick.”
Stark fought through his illness to play 32 minutes in the 56-51 overtime victory, but the Green Wave probably cannot afford for him to feel that way again. Six days after he was named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week, he finished with a season-high six turnovers while scoring a career-low one point and missed all six of his shots from the field.
Freshman Keith Pinckney replaced him at point guard for the first three minutes of overtime.
“I’ve never done that my entire coaching career,” Tulane’s Ed Conroy said. “It’s like pulling your closer in baseball. You send your starting point guard out there for overtime, but I felt we weren’t going to win the game (with Stark on the court).
“He got dehydrated. We thought he would be fine going into the game, but he just obviously wasn’t able to go.
“Jonathan handled it with maturity by being able to come back in, and I let him know after the game it won’t affect him going forward, but that was just one of those calls you have to make.”
Before practice a day later, Stark said he felt much better. Tulane (12-4, 3-1 AAC) likely will need him at full strength to win at Central Florida (8-7, 1-3) at 6 p.m. Wednesday and extend its best conference start since 1996-97. The game, the Wave’s last this year that won’t be televised, is available only on the Internet (ESPN3).
Stark, who led Tulane in scoring before the South Florida game, sparked road victories against East Carolina and Memphis to start AAC play, scoring 46 points while sinking seven 3-points shots. Last Wednesday, he came up one short of the school record for assists with 12 against Temple.
He came up short, period, against South Florida, unable to play with any of his normal energy.
“That’s probably as bad as I’ve felt in a game,” he said. “My body felt week, so I got tired a little faster than usual.”
With Stark ineffective, Tulane’s entire operation suffered. The Wave shot 33.3 percent, made only two baskets in the last 12 minutes of regulation and was fortunate South Florida struggled to score just as much.
“Our cuts and our spacing, which for a couple of games were sharp and crisp, were a little bit off,” Conroy said. “We have to be pretty exact and execute at a high level against the defenses in this league, but we had a hard time finding ourselves.”
UCF owned Tulane when the two schools were members of Conference USA, winning six in a row from 2012-13 and all four meetings in Orlando. After struggling out of the conference this season, the Knights have been competitive in league play, losing by two points to league-leading Tulsa by six to defending national champion Connecticut and by nine to projected contender SMU.
This time, though, getting away from New Orleans actually might help the Wave. Tulane is 3-1 on opponents’ home courts this season, averaging 70.2 points, and has failed to reach 60 in four of its last five games at Devlin Fieldhouse.
“We have way more energy and we’re more hungry to beat somebody at their place,” Stark said. “We’re all locked in, we enjoy being around each other and that’s how we take it on the road.”