With their 14-point lead sliced to two and just a couple of ticks remaining on the shot clock, UCF got the kind of clutch play from Marcus Jordan on Wednesday that could go down as a season-saver.
When Jordan buried a 3-pointer from the corner off a set in-bounds play, it allowed the crowd inside UCF Arena to breathe a little easier and brought his famous father, NBA legend Michael Jordan, to his feet to applaud. The clutch shot by Jordan combined with big games from Keith Clanton and Isaiah Sykes allowed UCF to stave off arch-rival Marshall and win 67-60 before a noisy UCF Arena crowd of 6,192 fans.
While the Knights (18-6 overall and 7-3 in Conference USA play) held Marshall (14-10 and 5-5) to 39 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle, the game’s biggest play in the tensest of moments came on Jordan’s shot.
Three 3-pointers and a jumper by Marshall sliced UCF’s lead to 62-60, and the Knights appeared to be in trouble after a jump ball left only two seconds on the shot clock. But UCF head coach Donnie Jones diagrammed a play where Jordan set a screen for Clanton and then rubbed off another screen en route to the corner. Once there, Jordan’s shot fell and the Knights had enough cushion to coast to one of their best conference wins of the season.
“It’s only natural to want the shot with the clock winding down,” said Jordan, who had missed all five of his 3-point shots before the decisive winner. “I’ve been there a couple of times at the end of games having to make clutch plays. That’s what I tried to do and it went in.”
Jordan had 15 points, while Clanton poured in 20 points and seven rebounds. Sykes had 15 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and one of the best defensive plays of the year with a scintillating chase-down block at the rim. And sophomore Tristan Spurlock helped the Knights in several ways with 13 points, six rebounds, three dunks and a steal.
“I’m happy for the win and proud of our guys,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “I walked in the locker room after the game and the one word on the board was finish. That’s what you’ve got to do. We almost didn’t finish, but we did finish.”
The win gave UCF some measure of revenge for its 65-64 loss to Marshall on Jan. 14 in Huntington, W.Va. The Knights are 13-1 this season at home, losing only to C-USA powerhouse Southern Miss.
The Knights are off until Saturday when they travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., to face Southern Miss. The Eagles beat UCF 78-65 on Jan. 28 in Orlando. The Eagles (20-4 overall) lead C-USA.
UCF was at its best at the start of the first and second halves. The Knights started the game with a 13-4 run to build an early nine-point lead. Then, after trailing 30-28 at the break, UCF opened the half with a 12-2 explosion. And by the time Marshall had its third basket of the second half, UCF was already up 46-36.
The Knights built the lead to as many as 14 points with 3:50 remaining before Marshall made a furious charge. But the Knights were able to prevail winning several battles for loose balls, winning the rebounding fight and getting the key jumper from Jordan.
“I don’t think any of us thought it was going to slip away because we all had confidence in one another,” said Spurlock, who made five of seven shots and hit a first-half 3-pointer. “We knew that we could pull it out. I think we outplayed them from the jump. We knew if we just executed down the stretch that we’d be fine.”
Spurlock, Sykes and Clanton also played major roles in Jordan’s game-sealing shot. Clanton rolled to the rim to draw in the defense, Spurlock set the pick to free Jordan and Sykes made the in-bounds pass to the corner. Jordan did the rest, never hesitating on one of the biggest shots of his UCF career.
“We wanted to misdirect them with me setting the back screen (for Clanton),” Jordan said. “I came off that and with two seconds I just had to catch and shoot. That’s what I did and it went in.”
UCF trailed 30-28 at the intermission despite racing to an early nine-point lead in the opening minutes. Clanton scored UCF’s first 11 points of the game by hitting two 3-pointers and converting two shots in the post.
But those were Clanton’s only points of the first half, and Jordan (1 of 7 in the first half) also struggled early on to allow Marshall back into the game. UCF made 42 percent of its shots early on and stayed within striking distance by getting contributions from several players.
The ever-hustling Sykes, the hero of Saturday’s win at SMU, had the play of the first half, chasing down Pitts from behind and swatting away a breakaway layup at the rim. Sykes gave up his body on the play, hitting the floor hard after the block. But the crowd gave Sykes a loud ovation once he got back to his feet.
Sykes also provided the Knights with plenty of toughness, grabbing four offensive boards and finishing several tough layups in traffic. Sykes work on the boards allowed UCF to out rebound Marshall – something that’s only happened four times all season to the Thundering Herd.
“Coach Jones just teaches all of the (small forwards, power forwards and centers) to make sure that we go in and rebound,” Sykes said. “We watched film and figured out that (Marshall) uses their athleticism. So it was about us just going and getting rebounds and boxing out all night.”