Tulane's basketball revival just hit a major pothole.
Favored by 15 over a South Florida team that was winless in the American Athletic Conference and had not won outside of the Sunshine State since Dec. 1, 2016, the Green Wave fell behind by 23 points with 6:00 left and lost 80-75 when a furious rally came up short on Thursday night at Devlin Fieldhouse.
The White Out game turned dark quickly. With fans asked to wear white shirts for the ESPNU telecast, Tulane's only lead was 2-0, and the Wave could not buy a basket, shooting 14 for 46 (30.4 percent) before getting hot when it was too late.
This one was hard to stomach. South Florida (8-13, 1-7 AAC) had dropped its first three conference road games by 40, 38 and 38 points. The Bulls also lost non-conference road games to Elon and Appalachian State.
Tulane (12-8, 3-5), which had beaten NCAA tournament hopeful Houston at Devlin Fieldhouse last week, still has not won two home conference games in a row since joining the AAC in 2014-15.
"We didn't come out to start the game with the focus and intensity that was needed to win in this conference," coach Mike Dunleavy said. "I told our guys don't take these guys lightly, and unfortunately we didn't start playing until six minutes were left to go in the game."
The Wave was beaten in just about every way possible, getting outrebounded (42-33), outshot (the Bulls hit 49 percent) and outhustled. South Florida became more confident by the minute under first-year coach Brian Gregory, who inherited a 7-23 mess and had only three lettermen back.
Guard Stephan Jiggets, coming off a 21-point effort in a 2-point loss to Central Florida, scored 23 for the Bulls, dribbling past defenders with ease. He added 5 assists with zero turnovers.
Tulane's starters were a miserable 15 of 41 from the floor, with Reynolds missing 12 of 16 shots before fouling out and star forward Melvin Frazier attempting only seven shots while struggling to find openings against the Bulls' 2-3 zone.
Sehic scored a career-high 23, making 4 of 5 3-pointers. Slater added 10 points and 5 assists off the bench.
The game started to get out of hand when South Florida, which led 31-22 at the break, went on an 8-0 run to go up 48-29 early in the second half, a stretch that included a 5-point possession. Tulane's Cameron Reynolds fouled Justin Brown on a 3-point shot, and Brown made two free throws before Tulane center Samir Sehic fumbled an easy rebound out of bounds.
South Florida's Payton Banks drained a 3-pointer seconds later.
"I only had two defensive rebounds (in 25 minutes off the bench)," Sehic said. "I didn't do my job defensively."
The Bulls kept expanding their lead, getting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Terrence Samuel and a prayer from Brown, who caught an inbounds pass with one second left on the shot clock and swished a wild flail over his shoulder from 12 feet before he hit the court.
"That's the basketball gods saying you didn't play hard enough, so you deserve for this to happen," Dunleavy said.
The crazy basket gave the Bulls a 62-39 advantage before the Wave responded with a flurry of 3-pointers down the stretch. Sehic and point guard Ray Ona Embo hit two treys, with Cameron Reynolds sinking one and Colin Slater drilling another to make the score 74-68 with 32.4 seconds left.
Trailing 75-70 a few seconds later, Tulane thought it had the ball back after an official called a charge on South Florida's Malik Martin. But after reviewing the play on a monitor, the referees ruled Sehic had straddled Martin before the contact, which by rule prevented an offensive foul.
The Bulls retained possession.
"I know it's a rule, but it's a terrible rule," Dunleavy said. "They said when our guy was (straddling him), it can't be an offensive foul, blah, blah, blah, blah blah. I don't know who on the committee made that rule up. If you have your space and get straddled by somebody, it can be no (offensive) foul. Just swing your elbows, do whatever you want to do, I guess."
Still. Dunleavy was more upset by the self-inflicted wounds.
"Effort-wise we were terrible," he said. "It's very disappointing. When we play good teams, we play great, and when we play teams that are in the neighborhood of our talent level or maybe we should win, we haven't done a good job there."
Almost nothing went right for 34 minutes. Ona Embo appeared to have a clear path to the basket after a turnover in the first half but tried to pass back to Frazier for a dunk and had it stolen. That miscue led to a 3-point play at the other end.
It was a total team breakdown.
"Coming out of timeouts, we gave up wide open looks against sets we'd worked on," Dunleavy said. "We gave up some 3s where we didn't recognize what was happening. You can't have a combination of not making good shots, not playing hard enough and not putting yourself in position to defend plays you'd worked on for three days."