After his team knocked off 16th-ranked Florida on Dec. 1, UCF head coach Donnie Jones started preaching to his squad that their opponents will play with an incredible amount of intensity each time the Knights take the floor. Houston backed up Jones’ theory Saturday.
As a result, the No. 19/18 Knights saw their perfect start to the season end at Hofheinz Pavilion as the Cougars held on for a 76-71 Conference USA victory. UCF (14-1, 1-1 C-USA) nearly overcame an 18-point deficit, but its second-half comeback fell short, snapping the Knights’ 14-game winning streak.
The Knights had the Houston (9-6, 1-1) lead cut to five on three occasions in the second half, but could get no closer until A.J. Rompza hit a contested 3-pointer with 11 seconds to go. After he was fouled, the Cougars’ Adam Brown hit a pair of free throws to secure the win for the hosts.
UCF fell for the first time under Jones, who took over the helm of the program in March.
Houston displayed that passion that a ranked team can expect to see on the road right from the start, opening the game with a 12-2 run. From there, UCF made too many made mistakes that it had not earlier in the season when faced with adversity. The Knights gave up a plethora of open looks to Houston shooters, fouled at inopportune times and on offense, turned the ball over too frequently.
“I talked to (our) guys about playing at a really high level each and every game,” Jones said. “Give Houston credit. They came out and made shots. They played at an exceptionally high level. We’ve got to be able to match that intensity.”
After what must have been a fiery halftime speech from its head coach, UCF came out stronger in the second half, and began the period with a 16-6 run that was capped by a layup by David Diakite with 14:06 on the clock. Houston responded with two free throws from Alandise Harris, and when UCF again got within five points for the final time, this time with 7:34 to play, Harris helped his team by hitting three free throws in the next minute to stave off the UCF rally.
Kirk Van Slyke got Houston rolling in the first half. The big man shot 6-of-8 from the field and hit three triples on his way to 15 points in the first 20 minutes as the Cougars took a 36-21 edge into halftime. The hosts shot 48.3 percent overall and 62.5 percent from deep in the opening stanza. Van Slyke finished with 17 points as did teammate Zamal Nixon.
UCF shot just 22.7 percent in the opening half, and 39.2 percent for the game. The squad committed 16 turnovers with a season-low six assists.
Keith Clanton and Tom Herzog both finished with 13 points in the losing effort. Rompza and Marcus Jordan each added 10 points.
The Knights, who do not play again until next Saturday at Southern Miss, were certainly upset with their performance at Houston. But Jones believes that the loss should not take away from what has been an impressive campaign for the Knights.
“It is not a one-game season. We are proud of what we have done, but tonight was not a great night for us. This basketball team still has a lot of improvement to make. We will learn from this.”