Excelling with offensive efficiency early on and some gritty defense late in the game, UCF made all the right plays to advance to the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament for the first time in school history.
UCF built an early lead behind the heady play of senior point guard A.J. Rompza and the toughness of injured forward Isaiah Sykes and limited UAB to 29.3 percent shooting in a 64-54 victory in second-round play of the C-USA tourney at FedExForum.
“That was the key for us, moving the ball and not caring about who got the shots,” Rompza said. “We were having so much fun out there.’
UCF advances to face tournament host and top seed Memphis at 6:30 p.m. ET tonight. The game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.
Junior standouts Keith Clanton (14 points and seven rebounds) and Marcus Jordan (12 points) played well for a fourth-seeded Knights team that shot 50 percent and had 13 assists on 23 field goals. UCF won despite hitting just one field goal in the final 9 minutes, 12 seconds of the game.
“We’re very excited about this win because it’s the first time in our school’s history that we’ve been to the semifinals of this tournament. It’s a great step for our program today,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “I’m really proud of our team. I thought that was a great team effort. We had a lot of guys step up and do great things.”
Rompza, who desperately wants to keep his UCF career alive, kept the Knights under control all night finished with 12 points and six assists. And Sykes, easily UCF’s most improved player this season, valiantly played through a sore wrist and added 10 points and six rebounds.
“(The wrist) is pretty good, but my teammates gave me a lot of confidence,” said Sykes of his sprained left wrist. “Down the stretch (of the season) you don’t get a lot of chances like this to come out here and play in games like this so I wanted to get out there and do what I could.”
UCF (22-9), which eclipsed last season’s 21-win total, advances to Friday’s semifinal round. The Knights will face a Memphis team that they split with during the regular season with each team winning on the home floor.
Memphis is hosting the C-USA tourney for a ninth time. The Tigers have won five of those tournaments.
But beating the Tigers will certainly be a tough task, especially in the Bluff City in front of Memphis’ rowdy home crowd. Memphis is in the C-USA Tournament semifinals for a ninth time. In the history of the tournament, No. 1 seeds have reached the title game 12 times, winning it all eight times.
The Knights have had a knack for winning these types of games over the past two years, upsetting the likes of defending national champion Connecticut and Memphis this season and Florida, Miami and UTEP last season.
“They are definitely very talented, they have a lot of individual talent and they can score in a lot of different ways,” Jones said of Memphis. “We played two games and we both came out on the winning side. It will be a great game. They’ve been playing as well as anybody in the country, so it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Already slated for a late tipoff, the start time of the game was pushed back until 10:20 p.m. local time after two of the earlier games needed extra time to complete. Southern Miss nipped East Carolina 81-78 in overtime in the first game, while Marshall needed three overtimes to upset Tulsa in the second game. Memphis beat UTEP 65-45 in the third game in a contest that featured four technical fouls following a second-half skirmish.
There were five lead changes early in Thursday’s game, but the Knights never trailed after briefly falling behind 13-12 in the early going. UAB got as close as six points in the second half, but could never overtake the Knights because of UCF’s stellar defense. The Knights’ swarming defense limited UAB to six second-half field goals.
UCF starting center Josh Crittle added eight points, six of them coming on UCF’s first three baskets of the second half. UAB (15-16) got 18 points from Ovie Soko, but standout forward Cameron Moore struggled through an 0 of 8 shooting night against the Knights’ defense.
Sykes didn’t start because of a wrist injury that he suffered last Saturday night in the win against UAB. He played with the wrist heavily padded and still showed his trademark aggressiveness by attacking the basket early on. Sykes had the highlight of the first half by taking a fastbreak pass, spinning around a defender and converting a reverse layup as he was fouled.
Late in last Saturday’s defeat of UAB, Sykes crashed hard to the floor on a layup attempt and sprained the wrist. He had trouble gripping a ball in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, but showed some improvement by Thursday night.
“Isaiah is such a big part of this team and I was texting him (Wednesday) and (Thursday) because I knew how bad we needed him,” Rompza said. “Not just what he does for us offensively, but defensively by wanting to guard the other team’s best player. With injuries like he had you want to shake it off and play through it. I just told him to give us everything that he had and that’s what he did.”
The extra day of rest and practice time thanks to the first-round bye was evident early on as UCF’s offense was very efficient in the first half. The Knights led 36-29 at the break by shooting 59.3 percent in the first half with four 3-pointers.
UAB’s only way of staying close in the first half was getting three 3-pointers from Preston Purifoy. Otherwise, UCF held the Blazers to 44 percent shooting and caused six turnovers in the first half.
UCF’s ball movement was on point in the first half as it had 11 assists on its 16 first-half field goals. Rompza routinely broke down the defense, getting in the lane and assisting on five baskets. Jordan and Clanton each had three assists in the first half as the Knights moved the ball from side to side to find holes in the defense.
Sykes’ legendary toughness added a new chapter in the first half as he scored eight points with his sore left wrist and all. He made four of his six shots and showed no hesitancy in taking contact on a wrist that was too sore to grip a basketball as late as Thursday morning.
Building off the momentum he got from last Saturday’s four 3-pointer effort against UAB, Jordan scored eight points and hit two more 3-pointers in the first half. And Clanton did the dirty work on the inside, scoring nine points in the first 20 minutes.
Now, the Knights look ahead to the monumental task of trying to topple Memphis on its home court. Rompza feels blessed to have his college career still going and he can think of no better highlight from his senior season than another defeat of Memphis.
“I’ve got so much motivation and mostly it’s about not wanting to stop playing with my teammates,” the fiery senior guard said. “Basketball ends at some point for everybody, but I just want to keep playing because of the bond that we have on this team. For everything that I’ve gone through these guys were always there for me. It’s obviously my last year, but it’s about showing guys respect.”