History was made at the CFE Arena Wednesday night.
In front of the first-ever sellout crowd in the history of the building, the UCF men’s basketball team defeated Illinois 68-58 in a quarterfinal game of the National Invitation Tournament. With the victory, the Knights advance to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden in New York City next week.
The Knights had 10,011 fans whipped into a frenzy as they built a lead of as many as 19 points midway through the second half.
But Illinois wouldn’t go quietly. With some hot shooting, the team climbed back into the ballgame. Malcolm Hill, who paced all scorers with 29 points, hit three 3-point field goals and was fouled on two others to lead the comeback effort. Illinois closed to within six points with just more than three minutes remaining in the game.
But UCF was clutch from the free throw line. The Knights made 11 of their 14 free throw attempts in the final 2:22 to hold off the rally. As the clock hit 0:00 and the horn sounded, the student section rushed the court and touched off a massive celebration as New York, New York blared from the CFE Arena sound system.
“It’s really surreal,” UCF junior A.J. Davis said. “It is great to be in Madison Square Garden. I have seen the Garden since I was a kid. This is a dream come true for me. It’s just unreal to see where this team has come in one year from where we started. Nobody thought we’d be here, but we believed in us and now we are in the final four of the NIT. This is a dream come true.”
UCF sophomore Tacko Fall thoroughly enjoyed being part of the atmosphere Wednesday night.
“That’s probably the best crowd we have had,” Fall said. “Back at the beginning of the season … we used to talk about how we wanted to pack this arena. I think Obama came here once and it was pretty packed. We thought about it and we made it happen, so it was pretty good.”
First-year head coach Johnny Dawkins, who addressed the crowd from the student section after the game, was thankful to the entire UCF and Orlando community for supporting his team.
“I was just amazed at CFE (Arena) today, how incredible our environment was,” Dawkins said. “The student section was off the charts. Our community – everyone came out – and we couldn’t have done it without them. That energy they gave us was amazing. I could see our players feeding off it. What a special atmosphere. What a special night for our entire Orlando community, and UCF. I was really, really happy.”
Four Knights scored in double figures. B.J. Taylor tallied 17 to lead his team. Matt Williams hit four 3-pointers en route to a 16-point effort. Davis tallied 16 points, as well. Fall notched his 12th double-double of the season with a 10-point, 10-rebound effort. Nick Banyard also pulled down 10 rebounds to tie with Fall for game-high honors on the boards.
The Knights led almost the entire way. Illinois held a 3-2 lead when Malcolm Hill hit the first of his six 3-pointers in the contest. But Williams answered for the Knights. He hit three 3-pointers to single handedly put together a 9-0 run and give UCF an 11-3 advantage. UCF continued to build the lead behind solid defense throughout the first half. The Illini didn’t hit a shot inside the 3-point arc until there were two minutes remaining in the first half.
For the first 18 minutes, Illinois’ only scoring option was the 3-pointer. That allowed UCF, who was working the ball inside and out, to build a 32-15 lead. The Knights took a 15-point edge, 34-19, into the locker room at halftime.
A B.J. Taylor 3-pointer sparked the Knights’ second-half spurt that pushed them to their biggest advantage in the contest. A Tank Efianayi layup with 12:44 remaining put UCF up, 50-31.
The Knights still led by 15 with 5:33 to go, when Illinois started to mount a comeback. Hill hit back-to-back 3-pointers and five of six from the line in a span of just over four minutes. The 11-point burst from Hill pulled the Illini within six. But that’s as close as they got.
UCF shot 44.9 percent from the field and the Knights’ reliable defense was effective once again. Illinois shot just 30.6 percent from the field and only made seven of its 24 attempts from inside the 3-point line. The Illini were 12-of-38 from behind the arc. The Knights dominated on the boards, pulling down 43 rebounds to just 26 for Illinois.
UCF will face off with TCU in the NIT semifinals Tuesday, March 28 at Madison Square Garden at 9 p.m. on ESPN. The other semifinal matchup pits Georgia Tech against CSU Bakersfield at 7 p.m. The NIT Championship game is slated for Thursday, March 30 at MSG.