Free throws the difference as USF holds off struggling Pitt

TAMPA, Fla. -- Coach Stan Heath's days of walking into the Sun Dome, looking up at all the Big East banners hanging from the rafters and wondering how in the world South Florida was going to compete in one of the nation's best college basketball leagues are over.

Dominique Jones and the Bulls are on an unprecedented roll after upsetting No. 17 Pittsburgh 70-61 on Sunday. Their coach is enjoying a surge in the conference standings that seemed improbable less than two weeks ago.

"A week and a half ago, we were trying to get into the race. We're in the race right now, and we've got a chance to win more games and play beyond just the regular season, which we haven't done in a long, long time," Heath said.

Jones scored 37 points and USF (14-7, 4-5) extended its school-best Big East winning streak to three games by retaining its poise and making free throws to fend off one of the league's best road teams.

Jones made 10 of 20 shots from the field and 14 of 17 free throws. The Bulls nearly squandered a 14-point second-half lead, but held on by making 11 of 14 free throws while going without a field goal in the final three minutes.

Gilbert Brown scored a career-high 25 for Pittsburgh (16-5, 6-3), which has dropped three of four conference games after starting 5-0 in the league and working its way into the Top 10. The Panthers played without defensive stopper Jermaine Dixon and hurt themselves by missing five free throws after it was 54-50 with 5:33 remaining.

Dixon injured his right foot during Pitt's 10-point win over St. John's last Thursday night. Without him, Pitt had difficulty containing Jones, who made three of four 3-pointers and drew foul after foul when he drove to the basket.

"We didn't do what we set out to do," Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. "Our goal was to keep him off the free-throw line and not let him get transition buckets. We only took care of one of those."

Pitt shot 50 percent in the second half (13-26), but missed eight of 15 free throws to finish 12 of 22. USF was 24 of 35 -- 20 for 28 after halftime.

"One of our strengths -- and you can look at the numbers -- is we've been a low-foul team, and we get to the free throw line much more than our opponents," Dixon said. "That was not the case, and that's why we lost."

South Florida has won four of five following an 0-4 start in the conference. The Bulls improved to 10-82 against ranked teams, including 4-20 since leaving Conference USA for the Big East.

"We're just focused," USF point guard Chris Howard said. "At the same time, after we win games like this we always say: 'Be humble, but be hungry.' That's the main mindset in that locker room right now."

Pitt rebounded from its first two-game losing streak in nearly two years by beating St. John's. The Panthers missed 11 of their first 15 shots in this one and trailed 22-11 before wiping out the early deficit with an 11-0 run led by Brown.

The 6-foot-6 junior had eight points in the spurt and finished the opening half with a dunk and jumper that helped the Panthers withstand another USF surge that carried the Bulls to a 31-26 lead at the break.

Jones averaged 37 points in leading South Florida to overtime wins over Providence and Seton Hall for the Bulls' first two-game conference winning streak since entering the Big East four seasons ago.

The league's third-leading scorer behind Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell had 13 points on 4 for 11 shooting the first half. He got some timely support from Chris Howard and Mike Mercer to regroup after Pitt's big first-half run.

"He's just doing what he does. ... He's just carrying the load," Howard said of Jones. "He may be the LeBron or the Kobe of this team. The way he's playing is lifting us up."

Jones made a 3-pointer and a turnaround jumper in the lane during the burst that enabled USF to open a 51-37 lead midway through the second half. Pitt made up most of the deficit with a 12-2 spurt but never got closer than four down the stretch.

Brad Wanamaker scored 14 for the Panthers and Ashton Gibbs added 11. Howard joined Jones in double figures for USF with 13.