Clanton, arguably the most acclaimed recruit in UCF basketball history, scored a career-best 17 points to ignite the slow-starting Knights in a 77-58 throttling of Rice at UCF Arena.
A crowd of 4,198 saw UCF open Conference USA play by falling behind by as many as nine points before responding with one of its finest performances of the season. Losers of four of the past five games, UCF shot 53.6 percent overall, 47.8 percent from 3-point range and 60 percent over the final 20 minutes on Saturday.
Clanton, the smooth 6-foot-8 forward from Orlando, had a big first half and made seven of nine shots. He even buried two 3-pointers – a shot he’s shied away from taking — when Rice defenders backed off and dared him to shoot. The 17-point effort bettered Clanton’s 14-point performance against Notre Dame in early December.
“I just wanted to be aggressive like coach told me to be. He’s been getting on me wanting me to take shots when I got them and that’s what I tried to do,” Clanton said. “When the shot comes I need to take it. As coach said, that might be the best shot we get, so I just have to take it and be comfortable.”
The Knights improved to 9-6 overall and won its Conference USA home opener for a fourth consecutive season. UCF plays next on Wednesday against Marshall at UCF Arena. The two teams split two games last season with UCF winning in Orlando. The game will be televised nationally by CBS College Sports.
“This was a good win for us and it was good to shoot the ball better,” Speraw said. “It is a new season for us because it’s conference season. It’s better to be on top of the leaderboard than at the bottom. If you want to stay at the top in this conference you have to take care of your business at home.”
Wednesday’s game will be Speraw’s first chance at getting his 274th victory at UCF, which would tie him with late, great coach Torchy Clark for the school record. Clark, who coached the Knights from 1969 through 1983, was honored posthumously with a banner this season at UCF Arena. Speraw has led the Knights to four NCAA Tournament appearances in his 17 seasons at UCF.
UCF also got an inspired effort from scrappy point guard A.J. Rompza, who had 13 points, six assists five steals and five rebounds. Rompza, a sophomore, has 45 steals in 15 games this season.
“I got yelled at last year so much about not being in the right position and I had to make a change,” said Rompza, who ranks in the top 10 nationally in steals. “If I’m in the gaps it’s going to lead to steals and help my teammates defensively.”
Rice (6-9 overall, 0-2 in C-USA play) has yet to win to win a road game this season in six tries. UCF’s victory on Saturday was revenge for last season’s 69-66 home loss to the Owls, a game remembered by most UCF fans for Jermaine Taylor’s dazzling 45-point performance.
Saturday’s game was the first career start for UCF freshman guard Marcus Jordan. Jordan, who has made a dramatic jump since returning from preseason knee soreness, has been at his best in the Knights’ biggest games this season and replaced Isaac Sosa in the starting lineup. He confidently stroked a 3-pointer early in the second half of a 15-5 run that put UCF in control. He had five points and four rebounds in 19 minutes.
UCF led 33-24 at the break, but it was hardly an easy climb early in the game to build that nine-point bulge. The Knights led because they dominated the hustle areas of the game, outscoring Rice 16-4 in the paint and 18-3 off turnovers in the first half.
UCF’s swarming defense forced 12 first-half turnovers, four of them coming on steals by Rompza. UCF’s full-court press forced 16 turnovers in the game, leading to a 24-7 advantage in points off turnovers.
The Knights got off to a shaky start, falling behind 19-10 because of rebounding troubles. But following a timeout in which Speraw implored his team to work harder defensively and to keep Rice off the glass, UCF responded with a monstrous run to turn the game around.
A 23-2 UCF run, highlighted by nine points from a clearly more aggressive Clanton, put the Knights in control. UCF also got a deep 3-pointer from steadily improving freshman R.J. Scott during the run to elicit a roar from the home crowd.
“Coach was really into us, but he always does a good job of finding ways to motivate us,” Rompza said. “If we would have put our heads down it would have just gotten worse. But we responded really well. But coach shouldn’t have to call a timeout for us to play harder.”
Said Speraw: “We kept our poise, we didn’t panic and we stayed with what we wanted to do. The biggest thing is we maintained our poise and then started hitting some shots.”
Clanton made five of seven shots, most of them on decisive post moves, and he even buried his second 3-pointer of the season when Rice dared him to shoot. Clanton had 12 points, three rebounds, two assists and two blocks in the first half.
Said Clanton: “I’m really confident with that shot now. Coach has been telling me that they were going to play me for my drive and I had to take that shot. So I took them (on Saturday).”