The UCF Knights fell behind 2-0 in Thursday’s game against the East Carolina Pirates in the first round of the AAC Tournament. That would be the low point of the evening for UCF, which prevailed 72-62.
At a time when you want to be playing your best basketball, the Knights crafted one of their best performances of the season. They were efficient and versatile on offense. They swarmed ECU’s star, first team all-conference selection Jayden Gardner, especially in the first half. They were in command basically throughout. Even when ECU would make a run, cutting the lead to as little as six in the second half, it never felt as if UCF’s chances of advancing were in peril.
Truth is, they never were.
“The whole year, we’ve just been talking about putting a 40-minute game together and I think tonight was as close as we’ve been,” senior guard Darius Perry said.
UCF scored 10 unanswered points immediately after that ECU basket to begin the game. They led by nine at the half and were up by as much as 16. Head coach Johnny Dawkins said the “killer instinct” displayed by his team proved how it has grown and matured throughout the year.
“When you get a team down, how do you keep them down? We’ve been working on that throughout the season. It was good to see it kind of come together today,” Dawkins said.
By comparison, UCF had struggled to maintain big leads against the Pirates in their two previous meetings. On Jan. 27, the Knights saw an 18-point advantage in the second half trimmed to three with four minutes remaining. Just last week, UCF went from up by 13 to up by two in the closing minutes of the regular-season finale at ECU. The Knights won both games, but not without some tense moments.
There was none of that on Thursday. The Knights hit seven of their first 10 shots, and five players finished with double-figure points, paced by 15 from Perry. UCF’s two big men, Jamille Reynolds and Avery Diggs, were effective on screen-and-rolls and just used their bodies to clear space down in the paint. They poured in 10 and 12 points, respectively. Those 12 points were a career-high for Diggs.
“We hadn’t given up that many layups off of ball screen defense in a while,” East Carolina head coach Joe Dooley said. “They bothered us early with ball screens. Then in the second half, they just punished us inside with post play.”
Brandon Mahan scored 10 points in his return from a one-game absence. He continued his season-long showcase of hitting absolutely ridiculous 3-pointers, including this one from about six feet beyond the top of the arc.
Defensively, the Knights accomplished their two top objectives: Limit Gardner’s impact and cover the 3-point line aggressively. East Carolina made only three of 16 attempts from deep, and Gardner was held down to four points on four shots in the first half. The conference’s leading scorer hulked up for a stretch in the second half as he tallied 11 points in about 10 minutes, but UCF ultimately kept Gardner to a manageable 17 points, under his season average.
“We just wanted to make sure we made it difficult for him to catch the ball as much as we could,” Dawkins said of his team’s approach toward Gardner. “We wanted to try to crowd him when we could so that we could try to take up the space on the floor. He still finds ways to score, which is amazing, but I thought our guys did a great job on him.”
Said Gardner: “They really punched us in the mouth the whole game. Credit to them and their game plan.”
Next up for UCF is perhaps the team they least want to see in this tournament: The Memphis Tigers. While the Knights arrived in Fort Worth, Texas as winners in six of their past eight games, Memphis have been hot as well. They were victorious in nine of their last 11 games, and one of those losses occurred Sunday when Houston hit a game-winning 3 from just inside half court.
A lot of history is stacked up against UCF heading into this quarterfinal matchup. The Knights haven’t won multiple games in a single conference tournament since 2005. They are 2-18 against Memphis when they aren’t the home team. The Tigers outscored them by 41 points and forced 49 turnovers in two meetings back in February.
But this is the conference tournament. It’s basically a new season, and Perry said after Thursday’s triumph that the Knights are a different team from the one Memphis overwhelmed six weeks ago.
“I think we’ve changed a lot. A lot of guys are starting to come down on the turnovers they had early on in the season. We’re starting to come together more, knowing spots that guys are going to be in. I think tomorrow is going to be a lot different.”
The Knights and the Tigers will battle for a spot in the tournament semifinals beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern on Friday. The game will be aired on ESPNU.