Charlotte 49ers fall behind early, can’t catch AAC-leading South Florida Bulls

For the first time this season, the Charlotte 49ers have dropped three games in a row — and coming on the first weekend of March, the timing couldn’t be much worse.

No. 25 South Florida was the more physical team Saturday afternoon, dominating Charlotte on the glass and in the paint en route to a 76-61 victory.

With three guaranteed games to play, Aaron Fearne and the 49ers have some soul searching to do after a second blowout loss in the past three games.

In a highly anticipated rematch with South Florida — the 49ers blew a 17-point lead in the first matchup nearly a month ago — the visiting Bulls were dominant in the second half. What was a five-point deficit at the break for Fearne’s team ballooned to 18 points in the game’s final moments, to the dismay of what had been a raucous Halton Arena at tip-off.

“We’ve got to find solutions,” Fearne said. “Get in the gym individually and collectively and work hard and work on the things that we are not doing really well. That’s our challenge now — can we lift and play well at the right time of the year? I’m really happy that the guys battled hard; I’m not sure we executed great. The effort was good, and we fought really hard there to the end.”

Despite the loss, Charlotte still holds the No. 3 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament in Fort Worth, with Southern Methodist falling to Texas El-Paso on Saturday. Charlotte now sits behind South Florida and Florida Atlantic with two games to play.

What went wrong

Center Dishon Jackson is one of Charlotte’s best players and presents one of the biggest mismatches in the AAC when he’s on. Saturday, Jackson attempted just three shots, accumulating four fouls midway through the second half and totaling just nine points and five rebounds in 17 minutes of action.

South Florida entered Saturday’s matchup shooting 32.6% from beyond the arc as a team. The Bulls connected on eight 3-pointers on their way to a 40%-shooting afternoon from outside. The 49ers struggled to match the Bulls’ hot shooting, sinking just one 3-pointer in the second half and five total on the game.

As good as the 49ers have looked this season, Charlotte will likely need Jackson’s paint production and rim protection to advance in the conference tournament, which starts on March 13. One theme has been common in all five of Charlotte’s conference losses: The 49ers are being dominated on the glass.

“We couldn’t keep them off the glass and couldn’t keep them off the rim. You’ve got to be really physical when you play against a quality team like that,” Fearne said. “We’ve had a little bit of (foul trouble) the last few games. You definitely need everyone available, and you’ve got to show unbelievable discipline not to put yourself in those situations. We had that in the Memphis game with Lu’Cye (Patterson), and those things happen, and it has to be next man up.”

Charlotte is playing an eight-man rotation on a nightly basis, with Jackson Threadgill, Robert Braswell IV and Dean Reiber serving as the 49ers’ bench relief. Braswell and Threadgill added just two points, and Reiber was the next man up on Saturday due to Jackson’s foul trouble. While he added 11 points, Reiber posted the second-worst plus-minus on the team at -16.

‘Let the crowd decide’

Late in the action, South Florida’s Kasean Pryor threw an errant pass directly into the face of Charlotte wing Igor Milicic Jr., enraging the crowd, which drowned out the remainder of the contest with boos each time Pryor touched the ball.

“I don’t think (it was intentional),” Fearne said. “I think he was in trouble falling over the baseline and tried to throw that thing out of there and got him in the face. I didn’t feel like he was trying to do that. If I felt like it was intentional, and the guys did, I’m sure they would’ve taken care of business themselves. I let the crowd decide what they wanted to do, and they got after that. That’s all I will say on that.”

Three guaranteed games remain

With two games left in the regular season, opportunities to improve are limited, and as Fearne says, “the cream rises to the top.”

The 49ers are set to play host to Rice at Halton on Wednesday — a team Charlotte needed overtime to beat after overcoming a 20-point deficit in regulation early in conference play. For Fearne, it’s business as usual — continue to work at practice and the results will come.

“We’ve been very good defensively, but we’re struggling right now to keep teams off the glass,” Fearne said. “We’re going to get back on the court Monday and deal with it because we have to deal with another really good team on Wednesday.”