Struggling offensively and down as much as eight points with 7 minutes to play, UCF used its defense to spark a furious rally and had some clutch free throw shooting that finally got the Knights over the hump Saturday night.

UCF dug out of the big hole by keeping Bethune-Cookman scoreless for 4 minutes, 38 seconds down the stretch with its full-court pressure and sticky on-ball pressure. The Knights then used a game-changing 12-0 run and two critical free throws by sophomore Isaiah Sykes to put itself in position for a 53-51 defeat of Bethune-Cookman at UCF Arena.

“I think we’ve got great toughness as a team,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said of UCF’s furious rally. “In practice we work on the press, being down and coming back to win. Tonight, we stayed focused and really grinded it out.”

Up 51-50, UCF (6-2) got a break when Bethune’s Kevin Dukes missed one of two free throws. Then, with the game knotted, Sykes calmly sank two free throws with 3.5 seconds remaining. Sykes entered the game as a 45 percent free throw shooter, but made seven of nine, including the final four tries.

“In that situation you try to block everything out and act as if you are in the arena by yourself,” Sykes said. “I wasn’t nervous at all. We had the momentum on our side and my teammates give me so much confidence.”

Sykes, who is increasingly becoming more of a factor for the Knights, led the team with 15 points. With UCF trailing 48-47, Sykes scored the team’s final six points on a baseline jump shot and four free throws.

Junior forward Keith Clanton struggled shooting the ball, but added 13 points. Jeff Jordan, a senior transfer from Illinois, made the first start of his UCF career and had seven points and two steals. He had a jump shot and a nifty layup in traffic in the first half, and then hit UCF’s first 3-point shot of the night with 6 minutes to play. Also, it was Jordan’s first 3-pointer of the season after missing his first 10 tries.

The Knights also got an emotional lift from senior forward P.J. Gaynor, who had thunderous dunks in the first half and another with 5:10 to play. He finished with nine points and three rebounds in 30 minutes and was active on UCF’s press.

“We were just feeding off the energy from the crowd,” Gaynor said. “Everybody heard how loud it was in there and it gave us a big lift.”

The Knights were without Marcus Jordan, who did not play because of a violation of team rules. Jordan leads the Knights in scoring at 15.3 points a game. He is expected to return for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. home game against North Carolina A&T.

And the Knights are still without point guard and inspirational leader A.J. Rompza because of a violation of NCAA rules. The senior will miss the next four games and is expected to return on Dec. 30 against either James Madison or Rhode Island in the UCF Holiday Classic.

“I’ve coached for a long time, but this has really been a challenge having so many people out,” Jones said. “Our best two 3-point shooters are sitting out, and if we just had one of them it would change things.”

UCF celebrated its 2013-14 entrance into the BIG EAST at halftime by showing a tribute on the video board. President John Hitt, who received a rousing ovation from the UCF Arena crowd, spoke of an even brighter future ahead for the program.

“Just think about 2013 when we’ll be playing against Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette and some of the best basketball teams in the country,” said Dr. Hitt, before imploring the crowd to secure their season tickets. “We’re looking forward to a great run in the BIG EAST and we appreciate all of your support.”

The first half did not go as planned for the Knights as UCF shockingly trailed 28-22 at the break. The Knights clearly missed the scoring and playmaking skills usually provided by Marcus Jordan and shot just 36 percent in the first 20 minutes.

The Knights turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, resulting in 13 Bethune-Cookman points in the first half. And with its offense struggling, UCF couldn’t employ its full-court press much early on and the Wildcats only gave the ball away five times.

Said Sykes: “In the first half we were a little too careless with the ball. We need to be more focused and have more respect for the people that we’re playing.”

The plan was to go inside to Clanton, who had eight first-half points, but he made only two of his first six shots and had two turnovers. And the Knights didn’t help him out by missing all three of their 3-point shots in the opening half.

Bethune-Cookman came into the game shooting just 27.5 percent from the 3-point line during the season, but made four of seven shots from beyond the arc in the first half.

But UCF was able to wipe out a night mostly filled with frustration and struggles with a stirring closing kick sparked by the pressure defense and Sykes’ cool in the clutch. Sykes worked on hitting 100 free throws at the morning practice and that paid off for him in a big way with the game on the line.

“I was in the situation before in high school and we lost,” Sykes said with a smile. “But I wasn’t focusing on that at all. I was just trying to knock (the free throws) down.”