With Rompza steadying the offense early with several big shots and inspiring the defense late by throwing his body around, UCF hung tough down the stretch and made just enough big plays to defeat arch-rival USF 65-59 at a raucous UCF Arena.

Twice down by a point in the second half, UCF showed great resolve and stayed in the game with one big shot after another. And at one point, the Knights got four defensive stops in a row and used a 10-0 stretch late in the second half to blow open the game. From there, UCF made enough free throws late to secure its second defeat of USF in the past three seasons.

“I think it showed a lot of character for us, especially this soon this season,” said Rompza, who led UCF with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals. “People didn’t expect us to hold on like we did, but I think we could have done a better job (late in the game). We have to make better plays but that will come along for us.”

Playing before a crowd of 7,653 and a nationally televised audience provided by CBS College Sports Network, UCF improved to 3-0 under new coach Donnie Jones. UCF was lopsided winners in the first two games against West Florida and Jackson State and Jones was eager to see how his team would respond on Thursday to a close game against a quality opponent.

“I’m really proud of our team because we had two blowouts in the first two games and we hadn’t really been in any late-game situations. But I’m really proud of the team, proud of A.J. Rompza and our veterans who came back on this team who really stuck in it down the stretch,” Jones said.

UCF entered the game shooting 63.6 percent from the floor and averaging 97.5 points, but had to find a way to win on a night when it shot just 21.7 percent in the second half and 38.3 percent for the game. Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton, UCF’s two leading scorers coming in, accounted for just 10 and 11 points on a night when easy baskets were hard to come by.

Instead, UCF got 13 points and two 3-pointers from reserve guard Issac Sosa, who had scored just 13 points in the first two games of the season. UCF’s bench accounted for 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

“(The win) means a lot. A lot of people talk about (USF) being in the BIG EAST, but at the end of the day it’s just a game and it’s about winning,” Sosa said. “We don’t pay too much attention about who we’re playing against.”

UCF pulled off a double-whammy of sorts on Thursday against its biggest in-state rival, routing the Bulls in a NCAA tournament men’s soccer game (3-0) early in the day and whipping them in basketball in Orlando for a second straight time.

USF coach Stan Heath said he was amazed at the growth of UCF’s team in such a short period of time under Jones, who took over the program as head coach in late March. Heath said Jones’ style of pressure defense and up-tempo offense is a difficult one to prepare for.

“It was hard to gauge on film because they had played Jackson State and West Florida where they really were as a program. And I think I underestimated (UCF’s) speed out there on the court,” Heath said. “In a short amount of time, to take over a team and impose a new style with the kids buying in and executing, it’s truly a strong reflection on Donnie.”

When the basketball victory was complete Thursday night and the fans were chanting Rompza’s name in unison, Jones couldn’t say enough about the emotional lift that the Knights got from their fiery, 5-foot-9 point guard.

“A.J. Rompza is the heart and soul of our team,” Jones said. “Every day in practice he’s got great enthusiasm. He played 31 minutes, but that was from both ends, 94 feet, both ends. He was pressing, running and making plays and making free throws. He just did the things that really carried our team.”

Knocked to the floor by a forearm on a screen, Rompza responded with a stretch of eight consecutive points in the first half. The offensive explosion helped the Knights build a 38-29 lead by halftime. Rompza said he gets fired up by the physical play and he knew coming into the game he would have to score to alleviate some of the pressure from his teammates.

“I took a couple of tough shots and if I don’t make them they are bad shots,” Rompza joked. “I thought that was something I wanted to do to help the team get going. After I took that charge, it got me going a little bit. I thought it was something that could help us, and obviously it did because we came away with the victory.”

With three wins in a six-day stretch, Jones said he couldn’t be happier about the progress that his team showed by clearing its first hurdle for the season. UCF doesn’t play again until Tuesday against Stetson, and Jones said the Knights will use the time to continue growing as a cohesive unit. But he’s delighted at the toughness already show, especially when UCF kept clawing and fighting on Thursday after falling behind in the second half.

“It was easier in the first two games, but (in the second half) it wasn’t too easy,” Jones said. “We had to run some clock to get good shots. We’re really focused on defense and rebounding and you want to use those things to help you score. Our guys did a good job. I was thinking it would take 30 free throws and we took 31. I knew we were going to have to grind it out at the line.”

John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.