Maybe, just maybe, UCF did more than simply author one of its finest performances of the season Saturday night. In the grand scheme of things, these Knights could very well be crafting quite the NCAA resume by beating another team with a rich tourney pedigree.
Having already beaten defending national champion UConn and College of Charleston earlier this season, UCF once again proved its legitimacy as an elite team on Saturday with a workmanlike 61-53 defeat of Old Dominion at UCF Arena.
Old Dominion (5-5) has appeared in the past two NCAA Tournaments and came within a buzzer beater of toppling runner-up Butler last season. But it could be the Knights (8-2) who are headed for “The Big Dance” this season considering how they have played against the best teams on the schedule. The Knights still have some work to do boosting their RPI – No. 71 in the latest polls – but they are certainly headed in the right direction after beating another solid team.
“This was a real good game for us. We knew this would be a physical game for us and we wanted to outplay them,” said UCF standout forward Keith Clanton, who had 23 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks and two steals. “They’re a tournament team the last couple of years and that’s where we’re trying to make it. So this is a big win for us.”
UCF has four in a row and seven of eight games. Dating back to last season, the Knights have won 17-consecutive non-conference games at home. They have not lost in Orlando to a non-conference foe with head coach Donnie Jones at the helm.
But this UCF team still has memories of last season and isn’t looking too far ahead, especially all the way to the spring and the NCAA Tournament. UCF was 14-0 at one point last season, before a midseason drought put a damper on things. These Knights, Marcus Jordan said, are a much wiser team.
“(The NCAA Tournament) is not even a focus of ours and we’re just taking them one at a time,” Jordan said. “Last year we looked ahead when we went 14-0 and starting looking at the tournament. This year, it’s a game at a time and keeping our focus on the present.”
Clanton carried the Knights throughout the game, doing it inside in the first half and from beyond the 3-point line after the break. Clanton had a double-double by halftime and made all three of his 3-pointers in the second half.
UCF shot 60 percent after halftime and made four of six 3-point attempts. Leading 36-35 with 10 minutes to play, UCF put together a 12-2 run that gave it control of the game. Dwight McCombs (six points) and P.J. Gaynor (four points) had dunks during the run, and Jordan and Clanton hit big 3-point shots.
“It was a grind game and that’s kind of who we’ve become – a grinding basketball team,” Jones said. “I’m really proud of our guys and this is a great win for our program and our kids. We beat a very good basketball team tonight.”
Jordan, who tied a career-high earlier in the week with 28 points, added 17 points, four rebounds and four assists. He made nine of 12 free throws, giving the Knights a 16-attempt advantage at the line in a very physical game.
“My shot wasn’t falling, so I tried to be aggressive and get to the free throw line,” Jordan said. “The way they were calling the game, they were definitely letting us play. So adjustments were needed and we did that. We won the game at the free throw line.”
The Knights are off until traveling to Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday. After taking a break for Christmas, the Knights host the UCF Holiday Classic Dec. 29-30. The Knights play Stetson on Dec. 29 and either James Madison or Rhode Island on Dec. 30.
UCF led 26-22 at intermission thanks to some last-minute heroics. Clanton had a nifty three-point play off a determined drive to the hoop and a free throw. Then, as the final seconds of the half ticked away, Clanton got the ball ahead to Rod Days, who found Tristan Spurlock in the corner for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Said Jones: “Momentum is big and it’s really hard to get in a game like this. We were able to take that, get a little cushion and break away a little bit.”
The Knights struggled offensively most of the first half, hitting just six of their first 22 shots. But they closed the first 20 minutes by hitting their final three shots – two 3-pointers from Spurlock and Clanton’s drive to the rim.
Jordan said that despite UCF notching some big victories this season against teams with rich tournament histories the Knights are still being overlooked somewhat because of last season’s rise and fall. That’s just fine with Jordan because the Knights are determined not to look too far into the future this season.
“To be honest, I don’t think so,” said Jordan, when asked if he thought UCF was starting to gain attention for its big wins. “After what we went through last year everybody is helter-skelter about us. But that’s not our focus because we’re just trying to win as many games as we can.”