When his team entered the Associated Press Top 25 Poll for the first time in school history Monday, UCF head coach Donnie Jones was pleased, but he wanted to see how his squad handled adversity before he was certain that the Knights were on their way to a special season. Jones now has his answer.
Playing for much of the game without their second-leading scorer, and battling other injury issues, the No. 24 Knights grinded out a 64-59 victory over UMass Wednesday at the Mullins Center to improve to 11-0.
UCF won thanks to its gritty defense – the Knights limited UMass (7-4) to just a 31.8 percent shooting performance and a 2-of-22 (9.1 percent) showing from deep – and clutch free throws down the stretch.
Isaac Sosa played all 40 minutes and led the Knights with 14 points, and Keith Clanton added 13 points and eight boards in 39 minutes. Sosa started at shooting guard in place of Marcus Jordan, who injured his ankle last Saturday versus Miami. With David Diakite and P.J. Gaynor hobbled by injuries, Jordan, who was averaging 16 points, logged 15 minutes – all in the second half – and hit five free throws and finished with seven points.
“This was a tough game on the road,” Jones said. “We fought a lot of adversity coming in here today. I was not sure who was going to play. These guys really found a way to grind out a win.”
As a result of fighting that adversity, UCF continues its incredible start, and heads into Christmas without a loss. The Knights are one of just eight undefeated teams in the country.
“To be honest, no one thought that we’d be 11-0 going home for Christmas. That was something that everyone was talking about before this game. Let’s just win this game and go home for Christmas,” Sosa said.
A UCF victory seemed in doubt early. The Knights struggled to score in the opening stanza, and trailed by as many as six points. But a 7-2 run midway through the half brought the Knights back into the contest, and the Knights grabbed a 23-22 lead with 1:50 left in the half when Clanton hit a triple. UCF took a 26-24 edge into halftime.
The second half featured several lead changes early, and the Knights grabbed the lead for good at the 12:28 mark when Jordan scored his lone field goal on a layup. UCF shot 16-of-19 (84.2 percent) at the free-throw line after intermission, and secured the win by hitting six foul shots in the final minute.
The free throws were key, but on Wednesday, it was UCF’s defense that was the focal point. The Minutemen rarely had open looks either on the perimeter, or inside. Clanton blocked four shots, and Tom Herzog, who scored six points to go with eight boards, swatted five shots.
“That was huge. That is something that we take great pride in. That was the difference in the game,” Jones said of the defensive performance.
The Knights won’t play again until Dec. 29 when they open the UCF Holiday Classic with a 7 p.m. game at the UCF Arena against a Furman team that defeated South Carolina this evening. Thanks to the win over UMass, UCF will most likely face the Paladins as a team ranked in both national polls.
“It is a good feeling,” Clanton said of the team’s undefeated start. “We worked hard to do it. We probably didn’t think we were going to go 11-0, but we just try to take it one game at a time. We play every game our hardest, and you keeping winning. And that’s what we do.”