The UCF Men's Basketball team wasn't perfect Thursday. They missed too many free throws. They didn't do enough with the 20 turnovers they forced. They experienced a prolonged offensive drought that helped East Carolina get much too close for their liking in the second half.
Does any of that matter? Not particularly, no. It's relative dross compared to what actually does matter at this time of year: The Knights won, 66-52. Their chances for an AAC Conference Tournament title are alive. Here's why.
Continued success from beyond the arc
Yes, I said "continued." The Knights spent the majority of this season as one of the worst 3-point shooting teams. They are still ranked above 300 nationally in 3-point percentage, but that doesn't tell you how vastly they have improved in that area over the past five weeks. Since Feb. 11 -- a span of eight games -- the Knights have nailed 39.8 percent of their treys (59-for-148). Not many teams can scratch at 40 percent from beyond the arc. UCF almost couldn't miss from there during the first half as it built an 11-point halftime lead thanks in large part to their 7-for-11 shooting from deep. Although they inevitably cooled off in the second half and ended up with a respectable 8-for-18 mark, that early shooting exhibition is one reason why the Knights never trailed.
Something that actually has been present all year long is the Knights' defense. They have had to become a different team on that end without Tacko Fall; they play more zone and have had to pick up their assault on the passing lanes rather than relying on stopping opponents at the rim. That assault was on display again versus the Pirates as the Knights forced 20 turnovers. Granted, some of them were self-inflicted as the Pirates got worn down late in the battle, but five steals from guard Terrell Allen headlined a solid 40-minute performance.
"We knew the only way that we have been successful is by hanging our hat on the defensive end, and I thought our guys gave us a really good effort tonight," head coach Johnny Dawkins said.
Dawkins probably would have liked to see more than 13 points scored off of those 20 turnovers, but again, that's small potatoes when you live to play another day in the conference tournament.
If there was a question that needed to be answered in this game, I thought it was this one:
You know A.J. and B.J. are going to show up for #UCF. Who is going to be that third contributor to pick up any slack? Dayon? Chad? Ceasar? Something to watch.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) March 9, 2018
The answer? All of them, basically. Dayon Griffin, Chad Brown and Ceasar DeJesus each contributed at least eight points. While B.J. Taylor and A.J. Davis obviously led the way with 17 and 14, respectively, this game won't be on either player's offensive highlight reel. Taylor's 6-for-14 line was buoyed by some late layups. Davis, who shot just 4-for-11, scored one point in a 22-minute stretch.
UCF is usually able to depend on the initialed ones to carry the scoring load, but getting substantial contributions from a few other Knights is vital for a team that wants to play below the 70-point mark.
The big finish
Basketball is a game of runs, and the Pirates made theirs beginning with about 15 minutes to go. What was a 14-point UCF lead would be trimmed down to one, 46-45, with 9:36 remaining. It was around this time when Davis' senior leadership came to the forefront.
"He was telling our guys that we feed off our defense and let's not let offense get in the way of what we do on the defensive end," Dawkins said of Davis. "That was a mature way of saying, basically, let's continue to defend, get out in passing lanes, see if we can't turn them over, try and get something in transition and get something easy. That kind of sparked us. I thought it was a really good message to the team and they responded."
Sure enough, the Knights regained control by forcing nine turnovers during the game's final nine-plus minutes, and some of those extra possessions ended with easy buckets from Taylor and Davis. UCF followed ECU's run with an 18-1 spurt of its own, effectively turning this game into a laugher.
Davis was partially fueled by bad memories of the last time UCF played a conference tournament game in Orlando. It was 2016 when the seventh-seeded Knights were knocked out in the first round by 10th-seeded Tulane. Davis was determined not to see his career end with a repeat.
"Last time I was sitting right here, I was talking about a loss and my season was over," he said. "I didn't want to be in that same situation."
Thus, UCF is on to the quarterfinals, where it will face the third-seeded Houston Cougars tonight at about 9:30 p.m inside the Amway Center. Houston pulled out a tight victory in Orlando last month, 69-65. The Knights were done in by senior guard Rob Gray, who scored 20 that afternoon. Gray's 18.1 points per game are second-most in the AAC. He is the catalyst of an offense that ranks second in the conference, behind only Wichita State, in points per game and field goal percentage.
ECU's season expired Thursday night. Afterward, interim head coach Michael Perry likened the experience to that of a funeral: "You want to celebrate a person's life when they are passing, very similar in this situation here."
The Knights aren't dead yet. For at least one more day in the AAC Conference Tournament, they hope to keep their celebrations focused on the future instead of the past.