The UCF men’s basketball team prefers to win through its defense.
But hey, scoring is cool, too.
After holding its last five opponents to about 60 points per game on average, UCF had to lean on fantastic shooting, smart ball movement and star scoring performances to prevail against the Tulane Green Wave on Saturday, 84-81.
“I’m definitely a defensive guy from the standpoint of what the other team is doing, but we like to score points,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said with a chuckle.
He added: “Every war that has ever existed, I think the offense has won it in history.”
And so, the Knights claimed this modern-day Battle of New Orleans thanks to season-highs in assists (22), 3-pointers (14) and field-goal percentage (60.9). Four UCF players scored at least 14 points, but no one shined brighter than freshman Isaiah Adams, who poured in a career-high 26 points and made his first 10 attempts from the field.
There were stretches when Adams simply was UCF’s offense. He scored seven straight points late in the first half to give the Knights a short-lived lead and then went on a 9-0 spurt all by himself in the middle of the second half. That took the Knights from up two to up 11 and they wouldn’t trail again.
It was the type of display everyone knows Adams is capable of — you can’t forget that he had 22 points in a win at Florida State in just his third collegiate game — but it was also unexpected given his recent production. Prior to this 26-point outburst, Adams had scored 27 total points in his previous seven games.
“Young guys, you hit that wall a little bit as a freshman and then you kind of fight through it. I see him fighting through that wall and coming out on the other side,” Dawkins said of Adams. “He’s too good of a player to be kept down.”
While his minutes were getting cut and his shot was off, Adams said he fought through that freshman wall by just staying in the gym, practicing late into the night and continuing to stay ready for his opportunity. He has worked hard recently on rediscovering his 3-point shooting form and that has paid off this week. With four 3s on Saturday, Adams is 7-for-10 from downtown in the past two games. He was 7-for-35 before then.
“There was a stretch where I just wasn’t on,” he said. “I wasn’t doing what I could offensively. ... This game was a little more like, ‘OK, I’ve found my groove back.’ Now we’re back to playing basketball,”
Even if Adams falls into another slump, Dawkins knows his uber-talented frosh won’t suddenly wilt and vanish on the offensive end.
“The one thing I never worry about with Isaiah is a loss of confidence, The one thing he does have is an overabundance of that, which I think every great player needs to have,” Dawkins said.
This game featured 19 lead changes, nine of which occurred within the first 8:10 of the latter half as both sides made just about whatever they threw up toward the rim. Tulane shot 64% during this portion while the Knights were even better: 75%
Forward CJ Walker picked up a technical foul early in the second half for shoving a Green Wave player who had tugged on Walker’s arm as he skied for a basket. That interaction seemed to put a chip on Walker’s shoulder as he responded by scoring eight points within the next three minutes. He finished with 14 points, six rebounds and the biggest defensive highlight of the contest, swatting away a layup attempt that would have cut UCF’s lead down to two with 15 seconds remaining.
Walker has scored in double figures in three consecutive games. Adams called the sophomore’s point totals “icing on the cake” for how Walker already impacts the game on the other end of the court.
“It just helps our team so much with him going to the glass, knowing that if we end up getting beat on the perimeter, we know we’ve got CJ in the back coming to clean it up,” Adams said.
Point guard Darius Perry sank six 3-pointers, giving him 24 through his last six games. He scored 20 points while Darin Green Jr. contributed 14. The 22 assists were six more than UCF’s previous season-high. The Knights have recorded 16 assists twice this season, and both of those games came within the past 10 days.
“For me, it was beautiful basketball to see our guys in rhythm, making connecting plays,” Dawkins said.
It was beautiful. But victory and beauty don’t commonly go hand-in-hand for the UCF Knights.
“We just pretty much outscored them tonight, and that’s not who we are,” Dawkins said. “We’ll take it because we beat a very good team on the road.”