The War on I-4 resumes tonight when the Knights and Bulls meet at 6 p.m. inside CFE Arena. But this UCF Men's Basketball team has been fighting another type of war all season long: a war of attrition. And it continues to rage.
Sophomore guard Chance McSpadden suffered a finger injury during Saturday's game against the Memphis Tigers and will miss the rest of the season, a source has told Black and Gold Banneret. McSpadden has averaged 5.3 points and 2.9 rebounds across 18 games this season, although his impact has been felt most on the defensive end of the floor as a shutdown defender.
This is just the latest instance of bad luck to strike the Knights, who have had to overcome season-ending maladies to Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall and haven't seen B.J Taylor fully healthy since opening night, not to mention all of the typical bumps and bruises that pop up over the course of a five-plus-month season.
If there is a silver lining to take away from this latest development, it's that the Knights do have plenty of experience in moving forward amid adversity.
"We have to stay resilient," Taylor said prior to Tuesday's practice. "We have to keep doing what we're trying to do as a team. We can't lose focus on things because of what happened. We can't control outside noise or outside energy. We've just got to stay focused on the team."
The War is here. See you tonight at @CFEArena ⚔️#WarOnI4 pic.twitter.com/3Jb839g9DJ— UCF Men's Basketball (@UCF_MBB) February 14, 2018
That focus was fortified during a team meeting Friday. Head coach Johnny Dawkins called it a "heart-to-heart" conversation where he stressed that there needs to be a sense of urgency every day as the season hits its home stretch. But moreover, Dawkins pointed to his upperclassmen to guide this relatively green squad.
Said Taylor: "He challenged me and A.J. (Davis) and Chad (Brown) ... to be the more veteran leaders for this team. We've got to step up and show young guys how it needs to be done and take more ownership of our roles and more ownership of the team."
The next day, the Knights claimed their first-ever win at Memphis after 14 unsuccessful tries. Sure enough, it was Taylor, Davis and Brown leading the way. Taylor scored 22 points in a season-high 36 minutes. Davis made nine of 10 shots -- "I think that's the best percentage I've probably shot my whole career" -- and ended with 20 points and nine rebounds. Brown stuffed the stat sheet with seven points, eight rebounds, three blocks, two steals and his usual extra-large load of energy. The triumph got the Knights back to level in the American, 6-6, and 15-9 overall.
"I think it helped us a lot," Taylor said about the meeting's effect on Saturday's victory. "... We were a little more assertive and everybody on the team just listened to what Coach said and took it in. That's important for this time of year because a lot of teams are going to have guys that start to tune out and go their separate ways. But if we still want to keep moving towards March doing what we're trying to accomplish, everyone has to stay locked in, bought in and do what Coach says."
Dawkins' message hasn't really changed: He wants his players to provide a winning effort in every game, something he said he has seen all year long. That's the goal once again tonight versus the Bulls even though they sit at the bottom of the AAC, are just 1-12 in conference and have lost five consecutive games. However, they almost picked off the Knights last month in Tampa, and Taylor knows exactly how much records mean in the War on I-4.
"You got to remember that it's a rivalry game," he said. "You've got to know going in that it's going to be a fight. It's going to be a good battle. It's sounds cliche, but you've got to throw the records out the window because every time you play your rival, records don't matter."