“The message for us is simple: We belong.”
UCF men’s basketball coach Johnny Dawkins made his declaration Jan. 4 prior to the Knights’ Big 12 Conference opener at Kansas State, and in front of a raucous, sellout home crowd six days later, they proved it.
Built upon a second-half surge and stifling efforts on the defensive end, UCF put its new conference on notice, toppling the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks by a 65-60 final score before 9,469 fans at Addition Financial Arena, marking the third largest crowd in program history and the second highest in a regular season game.
The victory ranks among the most prolific in program history, representing the first against a top-three nationally ranked opponent, the second against a top-five foe, and the ninth against a squad ranked within the top 25. En route to the team’s upset, the Knights (10-4, 1-1 Big 12) erased a Jayhawks (13-2, 1-1 Big 12) lead that grew to as many as 16 points with 3:45 remaining in the first half.
“It was a great night for UCF. Our guys kept fighting in a game in which they got down early in the first half to a very good Kansas basketball team,” Dawkins says. “When they get that type of lead, you start to get knocked back a little bit. In our timeouts, I was trying to settle them down and stress that we have to take it possession by possession. We talked about working our way back in it in that last four-minute segment, and we were able to do that.
“I’m proud of the way we fought back with great courage, effort and energy throughout the entire night.”
Dawkins’ Notable Streaks
In the first meeting between the two programs, the Knights also notched their first win within Big 12 Conference play and extended a few notable win streaks Dawkins himself owns against Kansas and its head coach, Bill Self — who in his 20 seasons at Kansas has led the Jayhawks to two national championship titles.
UCF’s effort Wednesday represented Dawkins’ second win against the Jayhawks as a head coach, joining his 2014 triumph over Kansas as the head coach of Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Overall, Dawkins improved to 4-0 against the Jayhawks in his career, having bested Kansas twice as a player with Duke in the 1985-86 season.
Dawkins soaked up the team’s win Wednesday among the onslaught of fans who euphorically rushed the court.
With the two squads trading blows throughout much of the second half, the Knights finally claimed a lead they would not relinquish with 2:57 to play in the final half.
Fifth-year forward Ibrahima Diallo grabbed a pass from junior guard Jaylin Sellers just outside the paint and finished a turnaround jumper moments later, giving his team a 59-57 advantage.
Fellow fifth-year forward CJ Walker, who made his first start for the Knights since March 11, 2022, gave UCF a bit of breathing room with a pair of free throws, and a Sellers layup coupled with two more converted free throws from junior guard Darius Johnson iced the Knights’ first win against a top five-ranked opponent since the team prevailed against then-No. 4 UConn by a 68-63 final score Nov. 25, 2011.
The timely shot by Diallo punctuated one of the better all-around games authored by the Saly, Senegal, native, finishing with a season-high 13 points and five total rebounds.
“He was great,” Dawkins says of Diallo. “He’s going against arguably the best ‘big’ in college basketball, Hunter Dickinson is a terrific player. For Ibrahima to go toe-to-toe with him and have to battle him in the low post, he did a great job, and I’m proud of the way he stepped up and gave us a huge effort tonight.”
The final sequence, one that saw the Knights outscore the Jayhawks 8-3 and limit Kansas to one field goal in the game’s final 3:23 of play, represented a microcosm of the team’s dominant second half in the face of one of college basketball’s blue bloods.
“We knew we had zone (defense) in our bag,” Dawkins says. “It’s something that we work on and we felt it was timely to play some today. That’s why you saw our guys play it so well, because they’re accustomed to playing it in practice. We were able to stay with it longer because it was effective at times in the second half.”
The Knights have a quick turnaround to their next Big 12 test when the Black and Gold welcome the No. 18/17 BYU Cougars to Addition Financial Arena Saturday afternoon. Tipoff for the contest is slated for 4 p.m. Jan. 13 and will be streamed on ESPN+.
For everything you need to know about attending a men’s basketball game, visit ucfknights.com/news/2024/01/8/ucf-mens-basketball-know-before-you-go.