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Even Amid Defeats, UCF Men’s Basketball Shows Progress

Lest we forget how lost the Knights were just a few weeks ago

UCF Knights point guard Darius Perry scored a career-high 27 points in a losing effort Wednesday night versus the Wichita State Shockers
Photo: UCF Athletics

The UCF Knights got just about everything they wanted on the final play of a one-point game versus the Wichita State Shockers on Wednesday night.

The ball was in the hands of the right player, Darius Perry, who drove inside the arc to a sensible spot just in front of the free-throw line and stepped back to create a clean look. The only thing UCF didn’t get was the desired result.

Perry’s jumper in the last seconds was a bit too strong, bouncing off the back rim. As the ball fell toward the floor, so did Perry, as captured by 24/7 Sports’ Jason Beede.

“I feel like I’ve got to make that shot,” Perry said a few minutes after the 61-60 loss. “I feel it’s a shot I’ve shot a million times in my life. It didn’t go down. ... As far as the spacing and the shot I took, that’s kind of what we wanted.”

Perry’s miss was the coda to another nail-biter between the Knights and the Shockers, their second within 10 days. Neither team led by more than four points for the final 12 minutes. Perry scored a career-high 27 points. His and-one conversion with 7.9 seconds remaining and subsequent deflection of a Shockers inbounds pass one second later were the main reasons why UCF even had that closing chance at victory.

“I think he has really blossomed under what we’re doing in our system,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said of Perry.

Wednesday’s loss unseated that previous Knights-Shockers matchup as UCF’s most gut-wrenching loss of the year. On Jan. 30, the Knights squandered an eight-point lead with about 3:30 left in the second half and a five-point lead midway through overtime in the 93-88 result. UCF was doomed then by 23 turnovers, which became a theme for the week ahead as the Knights dropped two games at Memphis while committing an outrageous 49 turnovers.

You can view Wednesday’s result as nothing beyond just another L, UCF’s ninth in its past 11 contests. But take a minute to think about the path this team has traveled over the past couple of months.

We all sang the praises of their back-to-back triumphs over Florida State and Cincinnati in December. Then came a hard-fought home loss to the Houston Cougars, who have been the beast of the AAC all season long. OK, no shame in that. Everything still looked promising.

Everything then stopped for the same reason most college basketball programs have had to stop this season: COVID-19. A little more than a week after that Houston game, positive cases within the Knights’ program put their year on pause. There was a nearly two-week stretch in which UCF didn’t play and hardly practiced.

Once cleared, losses to Temple, Houston and SMU followed. In the lead-up to that SMU game on Jan. 23, the Knights were able to finally get enough bodies on the court at one time to hold a traditional 5-on-5 practice. It was their first such practice in about three weeks.

Dawkins has always said UCF is a “no excuses” program, and COVID-19 wouldn’t change that. Every AAC team has been affected by the virus either directly. The Shockers are the only conference member that hasn’t had games postponed due to positive COVID cases within its own locker room. As of Feb. 12, 23 conference games have been postponed, and Memphis just halted its season a couple of days ago.

But a basketball team not being able to practice because of the presence of a highly contagious, pandemic-causing scourge doesn’t feel like an excuse. Or rather, it’s a pretty damn good excuse for a midseason swoon.

The Knights snapped their five-game skid with a home win against East Carolina before setting out for Wichita to begin that long road trip.

They missed a golden opportunity to beat the Shockers there. While the first game at Memphis was a debacle, the Knights played with more resolve 48 hours later in the back half of that two-game set. They still made far too many errors, but that was a close affair in the second half, and with a more polished shooting touch (they were 4-for-23 from 3-point range), that game becomes a toss-up.

“We had a chance to win tonight,” Dawkins said afterwards. “We just didn’t make enough shots.”

Those shots started falling in Tulsa a few days later as the Knights drained a season-high 13 3-pointers to secure their first-ever road win against the Golden Hurricane. UCF entered Wednesday night trying to build upon that and came up one point shy against the conference’s second-place team.

So, yes, it was another loss. But aside from the blowout at Memphis on Feb. 1, the Knights’ level of play has vastly improved from when they came out of their outbreak. Especially in these past two games, they are sharing the ball better, making smarter decisions and fewer mistakes, and displaying solid defense. They held Tulsa and WSU to less than 40% shooting combined and committed a total of 22 turnovers. By comparison, they averaged 24 turnovers through the first three games of that most recent road trip.

The UCF line graph is back on the upswing, even if the results haven’t always supported that. Kenpom lists the Knights as favorites to win six of their final eight regular-season games. That includes tonight’s home matchup versus the Tulane Green Wave.

“We’re definitely improving,” Dawkins said Wednesday. “You can see it in our guys — our younger guys are getting better in all facets, and our older players are getting more comfortable in their roles.

“You keep putting yourself in position and eventually you learn to get over the hump. That’s what this team is learning. This team is now learning how to win. To do that, you have to be in position enough times where you understand what you need to do to execute on both ends to close out a game like that and come out on the other side. That’s where we are.”

Any chatter about UCF as a possible NCAA Tournament contender has understandably subsided; The Knights need to run through next month’s conference tourney to have any shot of earning a trip to Indianapolis (assuming the conference tourney even takes place and isn’t scrapped once again by the pandemic). But those early-season results against FSU and Cincy were not flukes. This is a highly skilled, generally young squad led by an outstanding coach.

When a team doesn’t do anything as a team for nearly two weeks during the course of a season, there are going to be negative effects, physical and otherwise. That was glaringly obvious for UCF in January. However, even in this warped, disjointed, absurd cluster of a college basketball season, the Knights deserve a measure of credit for working to hoist themselves back to respectability.

UCF slipped up on Wednesday night but also continued to show that it is finding its footing once again.