UCF proved itself to be quite possibly the best basketball program in the state of Florida on Saturday, topping the Hurricanes 84-78 in the MetroPCS Orange Bowl Classic to remain perfect on the season.
The Knights (10-0) have now defeated 16th-ranked Florida, South Florida and Miami in Donnie Jones’ first season as head coach at UCF. The Knights were on the verge of getting ranked for the first time ever a week ago, but history seems about to happen now for a gritty UCF squad that withstood an early drought on Saturday and made all of the key plays in the second half.
When the game ended, many black-and-gold clad fans in the crowd at the BankAtlantic Center filled the air with chants of “UCF! UCF! UCF!” The Knights’ players mobbed the floor just after the final horn, celebrating like a team clearly aware that it has something special in the works this season.
“There’s an attitude that we have expecting to win,” said Marcus Jordan, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 23 points before spraining his right ankle in the first half and left ankle in the final 90 seconds. “All of our players are playing with great confidence and that’s making all the difference for us this year.”
The Knights have yet to lose under Jones, who took over the program in late March and instilled a toughness in the team and a belief that greatness was entirely possible. Now, a Top 25 ranking seems entirely possible for a blossoming UCF program.
“This is a special group and winning is just a result of that right now,” Jones said. “These are special kids. They have worked hard from Day 1, they are coachable and their chemistry is the whole key. It isn’t about individual talent; it’s about how we play as a team. They are continuing to believe and trust in one another and good things are coming our way right now.”
UCF was led by super sophomores Keith Clanton (14 points) and Jordan (12 second-half points and two 3-pointers). The Knights aggressively attacked the rim after halftime and shot a jaw-dropping 76.5 percent (15 of 20) in the final 20 minutes.
“I think in the first half I try to play more of a team game. In the second half I’m still playing a team game, but I’m just trying to be more aggressive,” said Clanton, who scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half much the same way that he did earlier in the week in a win against Louisiana. “I think this is a really big win for our program because everybody has always looked at UCF as more of a football school. I think we can make it a basketball school also.”
Once down as many as 12 points in the second half, UCF outscored Miami (7-3) 51-35 in a dominant second half performance. The only negatives for the Knights were unsightly second-half struggles at the free throw line and Jordan’s scary ankle sprain with 1:24 to play. UCF made just 17 of 37 free throws in the second half, but it never lost faith that Saturday was its day to win again.
“We just stayed in the game all day and regardless of what happened we kept our energy up and kept playing,” said shooting guard Isaac Sosa, who had six points, three rebounds and two 3-pointers. “It’s just about us expecting to win every game. That’s what our coach emphasizes to each one of us no matter where we are or who we are playing. We expect to win.”
UCF came into the game fully aware of what it would take to pull off a victory in a neutral site game against a team from a high profile conference. The Knights stunned then-No. 16 Florida 57-54 on Nov. 1 at Orlando’s Amway Center. It was the Knights’ first-ever defeat of the Gators and only the second win against a ranked team in school history.
Now, with the Knights at a spotless 10-0 the basketball world will likely be exposed to the most feel-good story in college basketball. The Knights were 26th in the polls last week and are almost certain to crack the Top 25 on Monday. From the start, Jones has been a big believer that great things were possible at UCF.
“I think anything is possible,” Jones said confidently. “We’re trying to build our program and this is a result of us playing 10 games and continuing to stay humble. We’ve worked hard and we’ve been able to win and being able to be ranked would be great for our program. We’d be really proud of that, but our goal is to be ranked at the end of the year.”
UCF senior center Tom Herzog, who was playing with a badly sprained left wrist, had 11 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots in 28 minutes. Point guard A.J. Rompza scored 10 points, while David Diakite scored nine points and calmly sank two free throws with 20 seconds left to ice the victory.
Down as much as 12 early in the second half, UCF made a charge to get back into the game on the strength of Clanton and Jordan. A 12-2 spurt – the first six from Jordan and the second six from Clanton – got the Knights back within 47-45.
But that’s when the BankAtlantic Center lost power, robbing UCF of its surging momentum at the time. The arena was pitch-black for approximately 90 seconds before security lights came on. Power was out for three minutes and the game was delayed for 24 minutes before restarting.
Said Jones: “You always worry about momentum shifts, but as I told the guys that’s just momentum and it has nothing to do with physicality and it’s all in your mind.”
But UCF would not be slowed by the delay, hanging tough throughout a critical stretch of the second half by attacking the rim fearlessly. The Knights tied the game with 9:41 to play on a tough bank shot by Jordan and took their first lead (59-58) since the opening minutes on a nifty left-handed layup by freshman Isaiah Sykes.
Sykes, who struggled down the stretch with three missed free throws, redeemed himself with a big steal with 24 seconds left and UCF up 79-76. From there, Diakite hit the two free throws to keep the Knights comfortably ahead.
UCF trailed 43-33 at the intermission, but that was only because of a rough 7-minute stretch of the first half. The Knights played well at the start of the game and closing the first half, but the dry spell early in the game.
UCF got off to a rousing start, hitting five of its first eight shots to jump to a promising 10-4 lead. But the Knights struggled over the next seven minutes, missing 12 consecutive shots at one point. Miami’s 17-0 run, which was stopped with a Clanton free throw, took the Knights from up six to down 11 points midway through the first quarter.
“I was really proud of our guys for hanging in. It’s a 40-minute game as I tell our guys every day and we just wanted to continue to grind,” Jones said. “I told our guys at halftime that we had escaped a very difficult first half with foul trouble and only being down 10 to a Miami team that had played very well. I thought if we could just get Keith (Clanton) going in the second half and get A.J. (Rompza) back in the game we’d be OK. We had a lot of guys in the first half playing in different spots and we were playing against a good zone. I’m just really proud of how we found a way down the stretch.”
Jordan had 11 points in the first half, but he needed 12 shots to do so. As UCF’s lone scoring threat for long stretches, Jordan had to sometimes force shots and he missed five of his 3-point tries in the first half.
But he would not be denied in the second half, hitting two 3-pointers, getting in the lane for tough baskets and other times setting up others for scores. His only regret was that he wasn’t on the floor down the stretch because of the ankle injury he suffered.
He said UCF’s confidence is surging by the day, and winning now is more expected than surprising.
“Anybody we play we expect to win,” Jordan said. “We just want to grind it out because we knew it would be a tough game. Coach got on us at the half in the locker room, but we knew that we were going to make a run and get another win.”