It’s even better than deja vu for UCF Women’s Basketball head coach Sytia Messer.
In her second season in Orlando, she once again got the Knights off to a winning start improving on her six-game winning streak that opened her debut season. The 2023-24 campaign has seen UCF set a new program record with an 8-0 start to beat out the seven-game winning streak that began the 1984-85 season.
“It’s a testament to where our goals are and how we’re going as a program heading into the Big 12,” Messer said Monday after the Knights’ 72-45 win over New Orleans. “Our ladies are buying into our vision here and it’s showing on the court.”
One other part of Messer’s philosophy that has helped her reach this point has been her approach to scheduling. Using New Orleans as an example, the Privateers are 1-8 to start their season, ranking 306th in the NET rankings. Like them, six of the Knights’ eight wins so far this season have come against teams ranked 100th or worse.
While information like this might make this streak look like smoke and mirrors, especially with another win coming against Division ll’s Anderson, there’s one particular game that showcases the Knights’ progress from last season.
In 2022, Auburn demolished UCF 86-46 in Messer’s first road trip of her tenure. In 2023, the Knights defended their home court to defeat the Tigers, now ranked 78th in the NET ranking, for the third win of their streak.
MAKING HISTORY ️— UCF Women's Hoops (@UCF_WBB) November 21, 2023
Our first time beating Auburn in program history‼️ pic.twitter.com/Vi1KIuNnRc
The Knights are not the only Big 12 team doing this. West Virginia (NET: 22nd) who made the NCAA Tournament last season is 9-0 with eight wins coming against teams ranked 100th or worse. Texas Tech is 10-0 with nine wins coming against teams ranked 100th or worse. Both teams have a non-conference strength of schedule worse than 300th.
Schedules like these help schools experiment in an in-game environment and assess what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Does going into halftime against New Orleans 33-29 not look bad? Sure. Yet, the Knights adjusted and dominated the second half 39-16. Regardless of opponent, making second-half adjustments is crucial in any sport, and UCF showed they were capable of doing that Monday night.
“I just kept believing in my teammates and I’m going to keep giving them the ball,” Jewett said in a press release after the game. “I keep believing they’re going to make every shot, so I’m not surprised that we were able to do that today.”
Defense was the name of the game for the Knights in the Coach Abe era, but under Messer, the offense has made a resurgence.
Guard Kaitlin Peterson, a transfer from Indiana, is averaging 19.6 points so far this season. Should she keep up this pace for the rest of the season, it would be tied with 1993-94 Tamika Coley for the third-best single-season scoring average in program history. She also ranks third in the Big 12 in points per game and three-pointers per game.
Career High Alert— UCF Women's Hoops (@UCF_WBB) November 25, 2023
KP with 32 points pic.twitter.com/RQiO3ViAvk
Joining Peterson in succeeding beyond the arc is returning guard Laila Jewett, who became the first female Knight to make seven or more three-point shots in a single game since Zykira Lewis made eight in 2014.
Jewett is also currently ranked second in the nation in three-point percentage, sinking 59.3% of her shots.
Meanwhile, on the free-throw line, guard Mya Burns leads the way for a Knights squad that leads the Big 12 in free-throw percentage (77.7%).
Coach Messer seems very confident in this trio, as they each have already clocked more than 200 minutes thus far this season, with Peterson (278 minutes) and Jewett (275) each ranking in the top five in the Big 12 for most minutes played.
Preserving the Frontcourt
Considering guards outnumber forwards and centers (8-3-2) on the roster, Messer has taken to keeping them out on the court for less time than the guards.
At the forward spot, with Anzhane Hutton injured, true freshman Achol Akot has taken over the starting spot. Though she has not topped 200 minutes yet, Akot ranks third in the Big 12 in rebounds per game and second in offensive rebounds per game.
Meanwhile, at the center spot, Missouri transfer Jayla Kelly has totaled 153 minutes of action so far this season, 41 less than Akot. She also leads the team with six blocks.
Behind her, true freshman Khyala Ngodu has made the most out of her limited playing time. Despite only seeing the floor for 88 minutes so far this season, Ngodu has leveraged her 6’3” frame to bring down the 4th-most rebounds on the team, more than fellow frontcourt member Taylor Gibson, who has been on the court 26 minutes longer.
Additionally, Ngodu has also scored 22 points offensively, just one less than guard Timia Ware, who has seen 32 more minutes of playing time.
Messer is rotating her frontcourt players more often as she only has four healthy ones to work with. But they can still provide her with flexible options suited to what she is looking for.
Only two more games remain in the Knights’ non-conference slate to prepare for their Big 12 slate of opponents ranked no lower than 70th in the NET rankings.
We’re getting ready for something bigger and better‼️ pic.twitter.com/uBE0SMb0PY— UCF Women's Hoops (@UCF_WBB) December 12, 2023
It’s a scheduling dichotomy reminiscent of the Volleyball team’s conference dockett, starting with a string of lower-ranked opponents before the difficulty ramped up later on and for the rest of the season.
“We’ve had some hard practices and put in some hard work to get here,” Jewett said. “This is the result of us all buying in. We have some momentum going into Big 12 play and we’re on the way up, for sure.”
Coach Messer already has this team in uncharted territory to start a season. Time will tell if she and the Knights can turn this longest-winning start to the season into one of the longest winning streaks of any kind in program history.