UCF’s A.J. Rompza knows down to the day just how much time is left in his final college basketball regular season. As a result, there’s a distinct sense of urgency to his play these days and it might have had something to do with Saturday’s senior moment from the point guard.
Rompza did a little bit of everything Saturday for the Knights, scoring 11 points, grabbing five rebounds, handing out five assists and swiping two steals as UCF completed a season sweep of East Carolina with a 64-55 victory.
Making the 90th start of his career, Rompza helped UCF to improve to 14-1 at UCF Arena this season. The Knights (19-7 overall and 8-3 in Conference USA play) won for a fourth time in the past five games.
“Man, it goes by fast because it feels like just yesterday I was sitting here next to (former UCF star Jermaine Taylor),” Rompza said, attempting to sum up his career. “I’ve got two (home) games left. If I could do it all again I wouldn’t pick anywhere else other than UCF. It’s been a like a second home to me. I would talk about being with this group of (teammates), but I might get sentimental and start crying.”
Needing to continue to win, the Knights have a big week ahead with games at Rice (Wednesday) and at home against UTEP (Saturday). The Knights sit fourth in the C-USA standings, a half-game behind third-place Tulsa (9-4) and a game ahead of fifth-place Marshall (7-5). Next Saturday’s nationally televised game will pit the Knights against a UTEP team that stunned Memphis on the road Saturday afternoon.
“If you want to make a move you let everybody else worry about themselves and we’ll worry about what we can control,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “We’re in a situation with how the year has played out to make a move. We’ve got to start passing some people at the top. We have a chance to do that in these next four games.”
Junior power forward Keith Clanton scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Marcus Jordan chipped in 10 points on just three shots. Sophomore forward Isaiah Sykes, the reigning C-USA Player of the Week, had nine points, six rebounds, three blocks, three assists and two steals. And true freshman Kasey Wilson played well off the bench with nine points and six rebounds in 12 minutes.
“The good thing about this team and the reason that we’ve won is that we’ve played as a team,” said Jones of a UCF squad that shot 50 percent and had five players with at least three field goals. “We don’t have to have one guy score a bunch of points for us anymore and we can win as a group.”
Up just 39-37 and Clanton saddled with three fouls midway through the second half, UCF used a spurt from the outside to grab control of the game. UCF got 3-pointers from Jordan, Rompza and Tristan Spurlock to spring ahead 50-41. Rompza, who also had a hard-driving layup during the run, said UCF’s willingness to share the ball has been key to their late-season success.
“This is the closest team and the best chemistry we’ve had as a team since in my four years here,” Rompza said. “Guys hang out with one another and get along with one another and they don’t care who scores. That’s why we’re being successful.”
Defense was another reason why the Knights were successful Saturday night. They held East Carolina (12-13 and 3-9) to 38 percent shooting from the floor and 16.7 percent from the 3-point line. The Pirates beat UCF three times last season, but have dropped both meetings against a much-improved UCF squad this season.
In a first half full of streaky play, UCF led 33-25 at the break by closing the first half with an 18-9 spurt. The Knights started quickly, played through a lull and then closed the half with a solid effort on both ends of the floor.
That Clanton played well in the first half and carried the Knights for long stretches was not a surprise. That Wilson, a true freshman from North Port, did the same thing might have been.
Wilson has increasingly won over the trust of Jones by adding muscle and improving as the season progresses. He made all three of his shots in the first half, shaking free for two layups and drilling a 3-pointer off a feed from Rompza.
“Coach is starting to trust me more and it’s helping me go out there on the court and be more confident,” Wilson said. “A.J. tells me all of the time to be confident and a lot of the guys on this team lift me up, so that helps a lot.”
As he has several times this season, Clanton was locked in and aggressive from the start of the game. He battered East Carolina with a variety of hook shots, scoring six of UCF’s first 11 points. He had 10 points, four rebounds, a dunk and a monstrous blocked shot in the first half for a UCF team that shot 52 percent in the first 20 minutes.
The Knights have four regular-season games remaining and Rompza wants to do whatever he can to extend the season into the postseason. The imminent end is starting to hit him hard and he wants to make the most of the closing run.
“I’ve just got two home games left,” Rompza said. “I’ve had a little shortened season and it went by fast. So I’m trying to make up for it, but not in a way with personal stats, but with team success.”