This is how it was supposed to look for the UCF Knights.
Surround Collin Smith with a bunch of shooters and a slashing point guard on offense, and harass opponents with that typical UCF-style of defense. That was the plan of attack going in.
It took until the fifth conference game for it to all come to fruition, but, boy, did it ever come Tuesday night as the Knights never trailed against the Tulane Green Wave and prevailed, 74-55. UCF led for all but 44 seconds of the contest.
This marked the end of the Knights’ five-game losing streak, provided them with their first American Athletic Conference victory of the season and their first win since Dec. 18.
“We were all happy, man,” point guard Dazon Ingram said of the feeling in the locker room afterwards. “We haven’t had a win in a long time ... and it was just nice to finally get a win. We know we’re capable of winning, but we haven’t been able to put together a 40-minute game. Tonight, we did.”
The Knights entered this game ranked dead last in the AAC and 322nd in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage. But with players such as Matt Milon, Darin Green Jr. and Brandon Mahan, you knew this team’s 29.3 success rare from long range was something of a fluke. They were due for a breakout.
But if you say that you saw this kind of night coming, you’re a liar.
Milon set the tone by nailing a 3-pointer 25 seconds into the game and going 3-for-3 from beyond the arc in the first eight minutes. Green followed with a 3 a couple of minutes later, and UCF would lead by double digits the rest of the way.
In total, the Knights’ buried 12 of 25 3-pointers, their most makes since December 2018. Milon and Green combined to shoot 8-for-15 from deep. But when Avery Diggs and Tony Johnson Jr. are also on target, you know that it’s just your night.
“They just came out and let it fly.” head coach Johnny Dawkins said. “... It was good to see. Everybody was aggressive out there. They were in attack mode.”
Added Ingram: “It was just relief to see everybody being able to knock down shots that they’re capable of.”
Dazon does it all
Dawkins said prior to the Cincinnati game last week that he needed to see Ingram asserting himself more, especially in the paint. But in that game as well as the loss to SMU a few days prior, Ingram saw his minutes reduced because he wasn’t being assertive enough. In those two games, he scored a total of four points, attempted one free throw, grabbed nine rebounds and had more turnovers than assists.
On Tuesday night, he was the best player on the floor. He only took three shots in 36 minutes, but Ingram was driving into the paint consistently to either draw a foul, grab a rebound or kick out to an open shooter. He finished with 15 points — 11 of which came at the free-throw line — seven assists and a career-high 16 rebounds.
It’s no surprise that what was possibly the offense’s best showing of the season coincided with what was definitely Ingram’s best showing of the season.
After the game, Ingram credited his teammates and coaches for continuing to believe in him despite his recent struggles.
“They knew at some point during the season I was going to hit some adversity, and I hit a brick wall,” he said. “I hadn’t been able to do anything. Nothing’s been able to go my way. But they just stuck with me. My teammates, they’re incredible. It felt good to finally be able to help my team get a win tonight.”
Dawkins on Dazon Ingram: "He was the best player on the floor from the standpoint of doing everything. ... I was really proud of him because he's had a couple of tough games and this was a great way to bounce back. He showed, I think, of who he's capable of being." #UCF— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) January 15, 2020
Defense still wins
We can continue to talk about how good the Knights were on offense, but as you know, this team hangs its hat on defense. And it shut down a much-improved Green Wave attack on their own floor.
Tulane shot 20 percent in the first half as they made fewer baskets (five) than UCF made 3-pointers (seven). The Green Wave had just 17 points at the half, the fewest allowed by UCF in any half since SMU scored 17 in the opening half of a game in February 2018.
Teshaun Hightower, Tulane’s leading scorer and the second-leading scorer in the conference at 17.3 points per game, was completely erased by the Knights’ defense. He wrapped with a season-low two points in 21 minutes as well as five turnovers and four fouls.
UCF isn’t always going to hit nearly half of its 3-pointers (bold call, I know), so it will continue to depend on its defense to be on point, night in and night out.
On this night, while the shots were falling on the other end, the defense hardly let up. Together, it resulted in UCF’s most dominant performance of the season.
The Knights are now 10-7 overall and 1-4 in the AAC. They will have a good opportunity to win another conference game this week when they host the South Florida Bulls (8-9, 1-3). USF has been perhaps the American’s most disappointing team thus far. That’s due in large part to injuries, but anyone who said they would be the second-best team in this conference is looking mighty dumb right about now.........................................
Tipoff from Additional Financial Arena is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPNU.