What a way to start the season for the Knights. Led by an incredible performance at point guard by Isaiah Sykes, UCF opened the campaign with a dominating 74-56 victory at cross-state rival USF Saturday, spoiling the Bulls’ debut at the renovated Sun Dome.
A huge contingent of UCF (1-0) fans were on hand to see the Knights defeat the Bulls, who won a pair of games in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, in Tampa for the first time since 1978.
Sykes, who traditionally plays at small forward, shined running the team. He nearly recorded a triple-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high eight assists.
The Knights, who hardly trailed during the evening, shot 50.0 percent overall and finished with a 45-26 edge on the glass. Sykes was one of four UCF players who finished with double digits in scoring. Keith Clanton had 16 points and 16 rebounds.
“It was an incredible win for our program and our school,” UCF head coach Donnie Jones said. “I am very proud of this team. I thought we played a great team (game). We had four guys in double figures tonight and played very unselfishly. The thing I am really proud of is that we played a lot of guys out of position. Isaiah Sykes hasn’t played one minute at point guard in his career until tonight. I am very proud of him.”
The Knights dominated from the start. UCF led 40-24 at the break after a first half filled with dunks, offensive rebounds and incredible play at the point from Sykes. The junior had 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in the opening stanza.
UCF shot 45.2 percent in the first half, when it outrebounded the Bulls (0-1) 25-13.
The Bulls got within 12 points with 8:28 left in the contest, but the Knights responded with a huge 3-pointer from Kasey Wilson that handed UCF a 59-46 advantage.
Sykes did it all for the Knights. In the first half, he found open teammates like Clanton and Sykes for dunks, and scored in a variety of ways. Holding a big lead in the second half, he slowed things down and got to the basket for impressive buckets.
“I just stuck to the game plan and focused. Our coaches did a great job in breaking down their film,” Sykes said. “Our coaches did a good job of preparing our team.”
UCF limited the hosts to a 36.4 percent shooting performance. Tristan Spurlock totaled 14 points in the winning effort, and Wilson added 13 points and six rebounds. Jawanza Poland led USF with 22 points.
UCF and the Bulls will also meet on Jan. 2 in Orlando. The home-and-home series is offering the Knights a preview of the BIG EAST Conference, which the program will join next fall. On Saturday, UCF’s banner already hung in the rafters of the Sun Dome among those of the other BIG EAST programs.
“It was big for us,” Clanton said of the win. “We knew that they were going to come out with a lot of emotion. Coach told us that we might not shoot it well, but the one thing that we can always control is our hustle.”
The Knights will make their 2012-13 home debut on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the UCF Arena against Alabama State. The game is the first of a school-record 20 home contests this season.