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Movie Review: UCF Topples East Carolina

In anticipation of the Oscars this Sunday, here’s your recap of the Knights’ victory over the Pirates

Matt Milon UCF Knights Basketball
UCF guard Matt Milon broke out of his shooting slump with a season-high five 3-pointers in Thursday’s victory at East Carolina.
Photo: Derek Warden

Let’s talk about a movie.

Let’s talk about a basketball game.

——————

On Thursday night, I watched “The UCF Knights vs. The East Carolina Pirates.” It’s a dramatic tale of two hardscrabble basketball teams battling in North Carolina.

It stars Matt Milon, Collin Smith and is directed by noted auteur Johnny Dawkins. To be frank, the quality of work in each man’s oeuvre has seesawed with some of their more recent efforts. But here, I think they and others come together to craft a generally pleasing piece of art. Much of the acclaim should go toward Milon, who shines in one of his best performances to date.

Milon was just 2 for 13 from 3-point range over his previous three games, but he snapped out of his latest funk with five treys against the Pirates, tying his season-high. He scored a team-high 17 points, his second-best total of the season. And a rebound he secured late in the contest was probably more critical than any single shot he drained. More on that later...

This film has plenty of positives, beginning at the beginning. The opening scene really packs a punch. You immediately feel the tone Dawkins is trying to set with his characters, and their motivations are clearly defined.

The Knights raced out to a 9-0 lead, making four of their first five shots and with each basket coming from a different player. But really, Smith was UCF’s best player of the opening half. By the break, he had tallied eight points, six rebounds, two charges (of course). And all that was possible because he picked up only one foul. Actually, Smith played 31 minutes and was whistled just twice.

For a player who is so valuable to the Knights’ cause but entered this game averaging five fouls per 40 minutes of play, Thursday was further evidence of what can happen when Collin stays on the court. The Pirates really struggled to stop him whenever he got the ball in the post, and Smith closed with 14 points and seven boards.

“I thought Collin did a good job of not pressing,” Dawkins said. “I thought he was really good at just taking his time. I thought he was very efficient; he has been efficient the last several games for us, and that’s who he needs to be.”

The camera work should be extolled. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful at certain junctures, and the story unfolds through smart and skillful shot composition.

It’s one of the simlest axioms in basketball: Everything looks better when the shots are falling. And it wasn’t just Milon who was on the mark from beyond the arc; the Knights went 10 for 23 on 3-pointers, including going 5 for 7 in the second half that helped them build a 17-point advantage with five minutes remaining.

It was a total 180 from Saturday’s 2-for-22 showing at South Florida and far above UCF’s season-long rate in 3-point shooting (30.1).

Veteran thespian Dazon Ingram and the fresh-faced Darin Green Jr. complement the leading men well in supporting roles.

Ingram was the distributor on seven of those 10 3-pointers and finished with 10 assists, becoming the first Knight to reach double-digit assists in a game since B.J. Taylor in November 2016.

Ingram also set up Milon on all but one of his five 3s.

“When he does that, he makes us a whole lot better. He’s capable of doing that every time,” Milon said of Ingram. “... It just makes it a whole lot easier for guys like myself, Darin, who don’t really create. We’re more specialists.”

Case in point, 3-pointers have accounted for 70.9 percent of Green’s shots this season. While he has had some growing pains, the freshman provided 13 points in only 18 minutes Thursday. He made five of seven shots, including three 3-pointers. Green has scored in double figures in three of the past four games and is shooting 45.8 percent from deep during this span.

However, this is far from a perfect picture. There are pacing issues throughout and a few scenes that simply drag. Some of the action either does nothing to advance the plot or was seemingly added to suddenly inject conflict.

There is palpable tension created late, but since it comes via incredible, unrealistic means, it doesn’t feel earned.

That 9-0 start evaporated just as quickly as it transpired for UCF as the Pirates scored the next 12 points. UCF contributed to that counter with three turnovers in four minutes. The rest of the first half was populated mostly by cringey offense and mistakes on both sides. After that 12-0 ECU run, there were 11 total points scored over the next seven minutes.

The Knights kept getting in their own way in the second half. They led by 10 at the 16:34 mark but instead of keeping their foot on the pedal, they scored just two points and committed three more turnovers over the next four minutes, allowing ECU to claw back to within two.

However, you never would have expected a 17-point lead with five minutes left to shrink to four just a few minutes later. But that’s exactly what happened to the Knights because they just would not take the free points right in front of them.

Now, I’m aware that UCF’s free-throw shooting has left much to be desired since the Cretaceous period about 2009, but Thursday’s game contained the worst short stretch of foul shooting I’ve ever seen this program encounter.

The Knights missed eight — EIGHT — consecutive free throws in a 28-second span: Four from Ceasar DeJesus, two from Ingram and two from Milon. That plus some clutch shots by ECU’s Tristen Newton made this thing much tighter than it ever should have been.

But the lasting memory of those flaws does fade some thanks to a triumphant, uplifting conclusion with Milon in the spotlight. SPOILER ALERT!....

Milon acted quickly as his second free-throw attempt caromed off the front of the rim. He jumped into the lane and regained possession before dishing off to Ingram, who would FINALLY end the drama with a couple of makes from the line.

“I knew exactly where [the ball] was going to go. I usually know where it’s going to go,” Milon said. [East Carolina] didn’t box out, it came to me, I gave it to Dazon and he took care of business.”

Dawkins called it the biggest rebound of the game. That’s hard to argue.

“A lot of guys maybe dwell on the fact that they missed the free throw; [Milon] went right to the next play. That’s what winners do,” Dawkins said.

There is not the most enjoyable way to spend two hours, but a lot of pieces come together to create a generally cheerful time. And beyond the performances, the visuals, the direction and the climax, there is another aspect of this work that solidifies my “thumbs up” verdict:

The score.

68-64, UCF.