Despite one of the better individual performances of the season provided by Isaiah Sykes, and a valiant second-half team effort, UCF was unable to top Conference USA leader Southern Miss Saturday as the Golden Eagles held on for a 78-74 win at Reed Green Coliseum. Sykes scored a career-high 27 points and had 10 rebounds and UCF overcame a 10-point halftime deficit before falling.
Southern Miss (21-4, 8-2 C-USA) led 37-27 at the half, but UCF (18-7, 7-4) used a 9-0 run to midway through the second half to get back into the game. The Knights got a big triple from Tristan Spurlock during the spurt and then took a 52-51 lead with 7:58 to play when A.J. Rompza nailed a 3-pointer.
Southern Miss countered with nine-straight points from Jonathan Mills and the hosts built their edge to 60-55 with 5:28 to go in the contest when Mills hit a jumper. The Knights continued to battle, and got within two points with a minute remaining after two free throws from Marcus Jordan, but Southern Miss hit 11 free throws in the final minute. After Jordan’s free throws, Spurlock fouled Neil Watson on a drive, and the Golden Eagle guard knocked down both foul shots. Southern Miss shot 29-of-37 (78.4 percent) from the line for the game, compared to 12-of-22 (54.5 percent) for the Knights.
“It is tough to get down on the road,” UCF head coach Donnie Jones said. “We didn’t quit and battled back. You can’t miss free throws on the road. Every point matters.”
The Golden Eagles are receiving votes in both national polls and improved to 11-0 at home with the win.
One of the most improved players in the conference, Sykes shot 11-of-14 overall Saturday. Sykes kept the Knights close throughout much of the first half, when he scored 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting. After the Golden Eagles went up 19-10 with 10:26 to go, Sykes scored three-straight baskets to cut the hosts’ edge to six points. Southern Miss then used a 3-pointer from LaShay Page to spark a 13-6 run to close the half.
“We’re really proud of Isaiah, he gave us everything he had,” Jones said.
UCF started the second half in strong fashion, getting within three points with 14:11 to play after Spurlock hit a 3-pointer. Southern Miss then responded with an 8-3 run that included a pair of dunks from Torye Pelham.
Jordan finished with 12 points for UCF and Rompza and Kasey Wilson both totaled nine points. A freshman, Wilson played well late in the game and scored all of his points after intermission.
Four Southern Miss players finished with double figures in scoring, led by Mills with 18 points. He shot 12-of-13 at the free-throw line.
UCF shot 59.3 percent from the floor in the second half and 52.7 percent for the game.
UCF will not play again until next Saturday when the Knights host East Carolina at 7 p.m. at the UCF Arena.