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Knights Can’t Overcome Fouls, Cold Offense in Defeat at Houston

UCF drops to 0-2 in conference play for the first time since the 2014-15 season

NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often you see Johnny Dawkins mad. Like, hold-me-back mad. But he was Friday night at Houston, and you really couldn’t blame him.

Dawkins’ relative eruption came at the 17:03 mark of the second half. The UCF Knights were fighting to hang with Houston Cougars when Dre Fuller Jr. drove to the basket for what looked like a layup to cut the Knights’ deficit down to 42-39. But the officials thought differently, calling Fuller for a charge.

Upon replay, you could see some contact between Fuller and Houston’s Nate Hinton, but it was minuscule at best. If anything, there should have been no call. But there was a call and it set Dawkins off.

As his assistants tried to block his path to the referees, Dawkins was tagged with a technical foul, his first since almost 12 months. Hinton made both ensuing free throws, and what should have been a three-point spread became seven.

Questionable whistles and a huge free-throw discrepancy aren’t the only reasons why UCF lost to the Cougars, 78-63. But it’s difficult to begin telling the story of this game any other way.

A Foul Night Indeed

Houston ended with a 30-for-38 line from the charity stripe while UCF went 12-for-19. But the difference was more stark after a first half in which the Cougars had 12 attempts and the Knights had ... let’s see, carry the one ... zero.

That was the margin at the time of Dawkins’ tech. UCF didn’t attempt its first free throw until the 11:30 mark of the second half. With about eight minutes remaining, the difference was 30-2.

Thirty free throws for one team. Two for the other.

Obviously, they weren’t all phantom calls, but that disparity can leave a team wondering what it has to do on the other end to get to the line. It’s not like the Knights didn’t play as physical as the Cougars. They just didn’t get many whistles in their favor.

Dawkins didn’t blame the officiating after the game when asked about the fouls.

“We’ve just got to tell our guys to keep on competing, keep battling,” he said. “Try to make stronger plays. You try to stay positive with the team. You can’t make no excuses; you’ve got to find a way.”

The game concluded with the refs, as if they weren’t making a big enough impact on the game already, blowing so many whistles, you feared they might hyperventilate.

Thirty-five fouls were called in the second half alone. There was a stretch during the final few minutes in which seven trips up the floor ended with a whistle. At that point, for UCF fans, the game had gone from giving you a simple headache to making your eyes and ears bleed.

Offense Lets Down the Defense Again

The Knights’ best basketball began when Dawkins employed a zone defense coming out of the first half’s under-8 media timeout. He saw results right away as that zone forced turnovers on three of the next four Houston possessions. UCF capitalized with a 10-1 run to take a three-point lead. The Knights trailed at the half, but only by four after being down by 11 going into that timeout.

Once Dawkins stuck with that zone, Houston made just three shots and turned the ball over five times in the final 7:45 of the half. The Knights didn’t play as much zone in the second half, but the defense remained effective.

The Cougars entered shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from 3-point range this season. In this game, the Knights held them to 38.2 and 28.6 percent, respectively. In the second half, those rates were 33.3 and 27.3.

The only problem? UCF’s shooting rates, in the game overall and the second half alone, were even worse.

The defense should have allowed the Knights to stay within striking distance, but instead they found themselves falling even further behind because their offense got stuck in a freezer. UCF scored its 42nd point at the 16:01 mark. By the time it reached 52, the clock was at 5:59.

This is now a trend for UCF. Here are their last three games:

Dec. 21: Hold Oklahoma to 31.3 percent shooting, but lose by one as the offense scores just 20 points in the final 25-plus minutes.

Dec. 31: Hold Temple to 37.7 percent shooting, but lose by four as the offense doesn’t hit a shot and scores only two points in the final 5:46.

Jan. 3: Yeah, read above.

The go-to scorer in this offense is supposed to be Collin Smith, but he found himself in foul trouble yet again and was surrounded by multiple defenders whenever he did touch the ball in the post. He finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds on just 4-for-14 shooting.

Ceasar DeJesus scored 10 points in the first 12 minutes of the game but played just six minutes after halftime and went scoreless. I think defense had everything to do with his long stay on the bench.

Dazon Ingram was more aggressive, as fans have called for him to be. However, he played one of his worst games of the season, going 2-for-9 from the floor and committing five turnovers (a couple of which were solely due to lackadaisical play).

Darin Green Jr., who was a revelation to start the year, is just 5-for-23 from long range over the past handful of games.

On the bright side, Fuller has had his moments offensively. Avery Diggs has provided some quality minutes off the bench when Smith sits. But there just hasn’t been enough firepower. That’s really a shame because this team continues to play with good intensity on the defensive end.

Up Next

The Knights traveled home after this game in Houston, but they will head back to Texas in just a couple of days as a meeting with the SMU Mustangs awaits. The Mustangs are 10-2 and, much like the Cougars, will be hosting UCF in their AAC opener. A loss would make the Knights 0-3 in conference play for the first time since 1997.

Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday. The game will be shown on ESPN3.