This was a snapshot moment that will forever be etched into the history of UCF basketball – the Knights showing grit and resolve down the stretch, finding a way to finally beat Memphis in the closing seconds and then celebrating with a joyous fanbase that had stormed the court.
Almost a year after Memphis came into Orlando and won on UCF’s homecourt in last-second fashion, this time it was the Knights who got a hard-nosed play from Keith Clanton and a clutch free throw with four seconds left for the first-ever defeat of perennial powerhouse Memphis.
UCF’s 68-67 victory, its 16th-straight at home since last February’s crushing one-point loss to Memphis, had fans dancing at midcourt seconds after the game. Many of UCF’s players were mobbed in the wild celebration as the UCF Arena throbbed with raw emotion.
“This win is right up there for us. We’ve had a lot of great experiences with me and Marcus (Jordan) playing together for three years, but I’d say this is right there as our biggest win,” Clanton said.
Head coach Donnie Jones, whose Knights improved to 14-4 overall and 4-1 in Conference USA play, agreed that the victory was among the biggest in school history because of the stature of Memphis (12-6, 3-1). That’s saying something considering that UCF has already beaten defending national champion Connecticut this season, and topped No. 16 Florida, Miami and South Florida a year ago.
“I think it ranks right up there at the top. All of those other ones are good wins and good for your program, but this is conference. You have to win your conference to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Jones said. “To me, this is the best win for our program because Memphis is the team at the top of our league.
“We want to get to the NCAA Tournament. You have to take `em one at a time and there’s still a lot of basketball to be played,” Jones continued. “The biggest lesson for us is obviously what we went through last year. But we embraced that adversity the right way and it helped our team grow.”
UCF grew enough to learn how to win a game in the final minute that they previously might have lost. Once up 13 in the second half with 16 minutes to play, UCF found itself trailing by two with 42 seconds to play. Then, following a UCF miss and a Memphis miss from the foul line, Clanton corralled a rebound with four seconds to play and finished a layup as he was fouled to tie the game.
A 57.6 percent free throw shooter on the season, Clanton calmly sank the go-ahead free throw to provide the winning point for the Knights. The clutch play capped a 23-point, eight-rebound night for the junior from Orlando.
“We do a lot of situations in practice where if you miss a free throw you have to run,” a smiling Clanton said. “So I was trying to treat it like that and make the free throw.”
A crowd of 8,734 filled UCF Arena with noise and energy from the opening tip. The crowd was the fifth-largest in school history. And by the end of the game many of those fans were on the floor, snapping pictures and dancing for joy with UCF’s players.
“It was unreal and we were happy to see our fans get so excited over us winning the game,” Clanton said. “Everybody stormed the court and was having fun. It was such a good experience.”
Added Jordan, who had 20 points and a driving layup with 90 seconds left to give UCF a one-point lead: “It was real cool with the fans. I didn’t think that it was going to happen and it kind of caught me off guard. I saw everybody out of the corner of my eye running and I kind of got out of the way. But it was cool to see everybody excited and supporting us.”
The game will go down as a classic in UCF history what with there being 16 lead changes and three ties. Both teams shot the ball well most of the night and the turnovers were at a minimum. And in the end, just one point separated two very evenly matched teams. That’s saying something for a UCF team that aspires to have the kind of success in C-USA that Memphis has had through the years.
“I think Central Florida is a (NCAA) Tournament team, no question,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “They are a very good basketball team, they are extremely well-coached and they have good players. Keith Clanton is a pro prospect and they are big. And this is a tough place to play, no doubt about that. They had a really good homecourt advantage today.”
The second half featured several wild runs on both sides. But UCF found a way to respond each time even though it was just four nights removed from a disappointing 65-64 road loss at Marshall. But that game taught the Knights how to respond to adversity and stay strong at the end of the night.
“This was definitely a tough, gritty Conference USA game,” Jordan said. “There are going to be a lot of tough games in this league where we’re just going to have to find a way to grind it out at the end. That’s what we did tonight.”
Memphis guard Will Barton made 10 of 15 shots and finished with 24 points. But he had just eight points in the second half with UCF switching Isaiah Sykes and P.J. Gaynor onto him defensively.
Up three at the break, UCF opened the second half on a tear to spring to a 52-39 lead and send reeling Memphis into a timeout. Jordan started the half with a 3-pointer off a feed from Sykes and by the time A.J. Rompza buried UCF’s seventh 3-pointer of the Knights UCF had a commanding 52-39 lead four minutes into the second half.
But Memphis would not wilt. An 11-0 run by the Tigers cut it to 54-52. Seven straight points by UCF, highlighted by an acrobatic driving layup by Jordan over Tarik Black, seemed to steady the Knights. But another 12-2 burst by Memphis put the Tigers back into the lead at 64-63 with 3:56 to play.
“We got the lead and jumped up 13, but we knew it would be a battle,” Jones said. “For our team to bounce back after a tough, emotional loss against Marshall and play probably the best team in our conference in Memphis, I’m just really proud of how our team stayed together and stayed poised and found a way to win.”
UCF led 41-38 at intermission thanks to the brilliant inside-outside duo of Jordan and Clanton. But it was the opposite of what most would have expected with Jordan, the shooting guard, slashing to the hoop, while the 6-foot-9 Clanton hurt the Tigers with his shooting from the outside. Clanton made six of seven shots in the first half, including two 3-poitners. And Jordan got to the rim at will and scored 11 in the first 20 minutes.
That the Knights led at the half spoke volumes about their offensive efficiency in the first 20 minutes. Memphis made 62.5 percent early on and hovered near 70 percent most of the first half. Barton, C-USA’s leading scorer, nearly had his average (18.2) in the first half with 16 points.
UCF came out with plenty of emotion, but had to weather a Memphis run that had the Tigers up 10-2 start to the game. But UCF fought through the early struggles, using a 10-2 run of their own to take its first lead at 14-12 on a Tristan Spurlock 3-pointer.
UCF again fell behind by as much as five late in the half, but another 12-2 explosion allowed the Knights to surge ahead as much as six points (39-33). Spurlock had two 3-pointers for a UCF team that made five of 10 from beyond the arc early in the game.
In the end, UCF was tough enough at the end and it finally had its landmark win against Memphis. All that was left to do was celebrate with its fans.
“We’ve had some big wins and have been a part of some good games, but (Wednesday night) was a great win for our program, and a great win for our school,” Jones said. “It was a great win for a lot of people here. Memphis has always been at the highest level and they have set the bar for the conference. Everybody is always shooting to get to that level and for our program to have this win is a great stepping stone for where we’re trying to get to.”