Despite being one of the nation’s 12 remaining unbeaten teams, UCF coach Donnie Jones said that his team is far from being a finished and polished product. But one of the things that the Knights have done best so far is learning — not from losing — but while continuing to win.
Class was once again in session Wednesday night as the Knights had to fight through some sluggishness and sloppiness and battle a physical Louisiana team. UCF ultimately pulled away in the second half for a 79-58 victory that pushed their record to a dazzling 9-0, but Jones’ wish is that the Knights will use the night as a valuable lesson.
“Guys were getting the ball (early in the game) and they were frustrated because it was physical and they were wanting the referees to bail them out,” Jones said. “But it was a great test for us because we haven’t had a team play that physical with us yet. … Hopefully this was a great lesson for us — with winning – that we’re not a very good basketball team without playing together.”
UCF is off to its best start since moving to the Division I ranks in 1984 because of a key 13-0 stretch in the second half Tuesday night, one that finally allowed it to pull away from Louisiana (1-8). And UCF’s big man combination of Keith Clanton and Dwight McCombs made it stand up with some rugged play inside to overwhelm the undersized Ragin’ Cajuns.
Clanton shook off a slow start by scoring 22 of his 28 points in the second half. The sophomore power forward also added 10 free throws, eight rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two 3-pointers in his most complete effort of the season.
“I felt like I played a real bad first half, so I wanted to come out more aggressive in the second half,” said Clanton, who made seven of his eight shots after halftime. “Coach told me to just play hard and be aggressive with everything that I did, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Clanton, a silky smooth player away from the basket, is able to step away from the basket more with the addition of the 6-foot-8, 245-pound McCombs this season. McCombs, a junior college transfer, started well in the first half and delivered on both ends of the court with 13 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals.
“We have to play hard all the time and not keep going on spurts and runs,” McCombs said. “It’s a 40-minute basketball game and we can’t keep playing 30 and expect to be up so high. We have to play hard all of the time.”
McCombs, who admitted afterwards that he is finally settling in with his role on a new team, had the play of the night when he rebounded a 3-point miss in midair and dunked in spectacular fashion. His swagger and aggressiveness have given the Knights an edge inside that they lacked before.
Said McCombs: “It was pretty much me just playing hard and attacking the glass. I just wanted to make sure I ran after it and it came off the rim and I went and got it.”
UCF won despite turning the ball over 20 times, shooting just 33.3 percent in the first half and getting just seven points from leading scorer Marcus Jordan.
UCF raced to a 20-3 lead on the spectacular follow dunk by McCombs and led by as much as 18 points in the first half before the ball movement and offensive flow ground to a halt. UCF seemed to have trouble with Louisiana’s pressure defense and turned the ball over 13 times while shooting just 33.3 percent in the first half.
“We got real complacent and went out there and just tried to get ours and didn’t play team basketball like our coach has been teaching us,” Clanton said. “We did that a lot better in the second half.”
Jordan entered the game averaging a team-high 16.3 points per game and had scored in double digits in each of the first eight games of the season. But he missed his first five shots and didn’t score his first points until the game was 25 minutes old on two free throws. What made Jones the happiest was that Jordan made an adjustment to his approach at halftime.
Said Jones: “I was proud of Marcus. He had (two) assists in the second half. They weren’t going to give him driving angles and he had to go out and create for others. When he does that it’s contagious.”
Having already beaten Florida and arch-rival South Florida this season, UCF has another litmus test type of game on Saturday against Miami in the MetroPCS Orange Bowl Classic. Jones is hoping that the lessons learned so far while winning will help prepare the Knights for a key game that could vault them into the national rankings for the first time ever if they can defeat the Hurricanes.
“These are the games you have to coach the hardest. And with your guys if they can’t get ready to go play Miami and Florida then you have the wrong guys on the team,” Jones said. “We just have to go execute and compete. Our guys have done that against South Florida and Florida, and our guys have competed at that level. We’ve played with toughness for 40 minutes and we’ll have to do that again.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]