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UCF Men’s Basketball Loses Its Identity in Blowout Defeat at UConn

The Huskies broke down the Knights’ defense consistently in the second half

NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Connecticut
UConn forward Isaiah Whaley and the Huskies got a bunch of dunks and layups against the Knights on Wednesday night as UCF lost, 81-65.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The UCF Knights and UConn Huskies played a full 40 minutes Wednesday night, but the essence of the 81-65 game can be boiled down into three defensive possessions for the Knights that took place in less than two minutes during the second half.

  1. UConn leads 40-36 with 16:46 to play, and Collin Smith has just checked out after picking up his third foul. As the Huskies inbound the ball from underneath UCF’s basket, Brandon Mahan sets up guarding UConn forward Isaiah Whaley. Whaley sets a couple of screens for Christian Vital, on whom both Mahan and Frank Bertz jump out. That leaves Whaley all alone, and he cuts the hoop for the wide-open pass and dunk.
  2. About a minute later, the Huskies run a ton of motion with about seven screens involved. The Knights can’t keep up with all of this movement, Whaley slips in behind Mahan, and Alterique Gilbert slings a pass to him for another dunk.
  3. UConn’s next possession began after a missed 3 from Darin Green Jr. Vital gathered the rebound and sprinted the entire length of the floor. He blew right past Mahan on his way to a layup.

Johnny Dawkins immediately called a timeout with his team now trailing, 46-38, but the Knights never recovered.

I’m not trying to pick on Mahan; UCF’s defensive blunders deserve team-wide credit. That’s something we just don’t see under Dawkins.

Even when the Knights have had bad games this year, you could still depend on them to play sound on one specific end of the court. A resolute defense has, is and will continue to be this program’s identity for as long as Dawkins is the head man.

But UConn’s quickness, ball movement and play design outsmarted the Knights’ defense time and time again Wednesday. UCF compounded its issues with nine second-half turnovers that led directly to 11 points, but no matter how the Huskies were able to get to the rim -- not just thanks to poor defense but also smart cutting and by capitalizing on steals -- the point is they were able to get there WAAAAAAAAY too often. That’s the main reason why this game wasn’t very competitive for the final 10-plus minutes.

Stat of the Knight

UConn attempted 20 shots within the first 15 minutes of the second half. Sixteen of those 20 field goals were either layups or dunks.

What were the positives?

There were a few...

  • Guard Dazon Ingram played, but unlike Saturday’s game versus Tulane, he was able to give the Knights substantial minutes. Ingram was on the floor for 26 minutes and looked like his old self after battling an illness for the past week. He tallied nine points, seven rebounds and four assists. He was UCF’s best point guard by far as Tony Johnson Jr. was erratic in all facets, all night long (2-for-7 shooting, one assist, one turnover and four fouls in 17 minutes).
  • Ceasar DeJesus scored 14 points after scoring seven in the past three games combined. The redshirt junior from New Jersey had a group of family and friends in attendance, and he came out looking very motivated. You know Ceasar wants to drive and get into the lane, and he was able to do that extremely well in the first half. He scored eight of the Knights’ first 18 points.
    In the second half, he got frustrated by some of the officiating and a couple of turnovers, and I think that kind of took him out of the game, mentally. But after getting hit in the eye versus Wichita State and then basically being a forgotten man recently, it was good to see that DeJesus can still provide an offensive spark in a hurry.
  • Collin Smith had another nice output with 17 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes. The equation for him continues to be simple: No foul trouble + Stay in the paint on offense = success.
    Now, Smith sat out the last 6:06 of the first half because he had two fouls, and then he picked up a third one right before that game-changing stretch early in the second half. But he was too big and athletic for UConn’s undersized lineup to stop when he imposed his will near the basket. I know Collin wants to be a stretch four, but he’s not that right now. Every jumper he takes feels like an unnecessary risk at best and a wasted possession at worst. If he can stay committed to operating within and around the paint, he can be Great the rest of the way.

As for UConn...

This game was an example of why I think the Huskies are one of the seven teams that can possibly win next month’s American Athletic Conference Tournament. You need guards to win in college basketball, and they have a pair of studs in senior Christian Vital (18 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and freshman James Bouknight (16 points, seven rebounds). If Whaley, who tied a career-high with 18 points, can be a reliable factor down low, this is a dangerous team. After going 1-6 at the start of its conference slate, UConn has won six of its past nine games.

Next up for UCF

That double-OT win at Cincinnati feels like ages ago, doesn’t it? That was supposed to be the game that gave the Knights a double shot of momentum as they headed down the regular-season home stretch and entered the conference tournament. But then came the collapse versus Tulane and now this. Thus, UCF (14-13 overall, 5-10 in the AAC) is right back to searching desperately for something that will get it feeling good itself before heading to Fort Worth for the tourney.

Here’s the problem: The Knights have never left Tulsa feeling good about themselves. They are 0-10 all-time in road games at Tulsa, but that’s where they will be headed next. The Golden Hurricane have won four of five games since losing at UCF on Feb. 9. They are 19-9 overall and 11-4 in conference.

Tipoff between UCF and Tulsa is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.