SMU hit four early 3-pointers, built an 18-11 lead and looked to be on its way to another big win against UCF. Just six weeks ago, SMU had beaten the Knights 65-43 in a game that the Mustangs led by as much as 30.
But what happened next showed that UCF is hardly the same team that crumbled back on that disappointing night in January.
When UCF started banging in shots from all over Tulsa’s BOK Center Wednesday night and played with the efficiency and poise of a veteran team, it allowed the Knights to pull off a stunning 69-53 rout of SMU.
“We got behind early and certainly you are thinking about the game earlier in the year. But the guys bounced back and showed resiliency,” Speraw said afterward. “I hoped that we’d get this response. They really took it at us in January and we weren’t ready for it at that stage of the season. But I thought our guys would come in tonight with a good mental frame of mind. And we played well.”
Did they ever? A UCF team that shot 36 percent against SMU in January hit 54.5 percent of its shots on Wednesday night and drilled seven 3-pointers. The Knights were so efficient that they had 23 assists on their 26 field goals and they turned the ball over just 12 times.
UCF won just its second C-USA tourney game in school history. The Knights last won a tournament game in 2006, beating East Carolina 65-52. They had lost the last three postseason games.
Speraw, who became the school’s winningest coach earlier this season and coached in his 500th game, loathes talking about himself, but it was clear that this resounding victory meant something special to him. He is a proud, driven head coach and he’s certainly heard the whispers of how UCF’s program has seemingly been stuck in neutral this season.
But anyone who watched the Knights on Wednesday could see that the future is so bright for the program. There was sophomore A.J. Rompza dishing out eight assists and not committing a turnover in 32 minutes and freshman Marcus Jordan giving the Knights plenty of flash (six assists and a no-look gem to P.J Gaynor) and grit (five rebounds and three steals).
And then there was freshman forward Keith Clanton (six of nine points in first half) and A.J. Tyler coming through late (all 12 points after halftime).
Speraw believed in Taylor Young when some doubted that he was a Division I player and all he’s done is shoot better than 60 percent from the 3-point line over the last five games. And the coach has continued to put the ball in the hands of sophomore guard Isaac Sosa (14 points and four 3-pointers on Wednesday) despite bouts with confidence issues.
Up next is the ultimate challenge for UCF: Top-seeded and 21st ranked UTEP awaits the Knights at 10 p.m. EST on Thursday. UTEP has been the league’s best team start to finish this season, going 15-1 in C-USA play and 24-5 overall. They throttled UCF 96-59 on Jan. 23 behind a stellar second-half performance from guard Randy Culpepper, C-USA’s Player of the Year.
“You know that in tournament play not everything is going to go your way and it won’t always be a smooth ride,” Speraw said of Wednesday’s shaky start. “How you handle negatives and adversity show a lot about you about your team. I’m really proud of our guys.”