Seeing your season end is always a bitter pill to swallow. But the UCF Knights can at least comfort themselves as they depart the AAC Tournament with the fact that they fought to the bitter end against the Memphis Tigers on Friday night.
UCF erased a 15-point deficit and led with about five minutes remaining. They just couldn’t do enough offensively down the stretch in a 70-62 defeat. The Knights are now 2-19 versus Memphis in road and neutral-court games.
At the start, the Knights were dogged by many of the same mistakes they encountered in the first two games between these teams. Forty-nine UCF turnovers made life pretty easy for Memphis twice last month, and for the first 10 minutes of Friday’s quarterfinal, there was a heavy presence of deja vu as the Tigers pressed, trapped and harrassed UCF all over the floor. By the 8:42 mark of the opening half, UCF had already given the ball away 10 times and missed 15 of 18 shots.
The Tigers weren’t putting on an offensive clinic either — this game was fairly hideous for most of the first half — but with the help of a few 3-pointers and UCF’s sloppiness, Memphis opened up a 25-10 advantage.
“For the first 10 minutes of the game, they came out more aggressive than we did, and we didn’t know how to handle it in the beginning,” forward Isaiah Adams said.
However, the Knights didn’t roll over; they rose up. They outscored Memphis 18-7 for the rest of the half to head into the break trailing 32-28. Brandon Mahan and Isaiah Adams came alive to combine for 13 of those points, but the big key was how the Knights were finally able to navigate around Memphis’ press. The Knights committed just two turnovers in the final seven minutes of the half, starving the Tigers of those fast-break opportunities they rely on.
Adams said he had to give himself a pep talk when things were going wrong for him and his teammates during the opening 20 minutes. “You’ve got to turn it up,” the freshman told himself. He admitted he wasn’t aggressive enough early, but that changed quickly.
“I just did what I could and tried to bring a lot of energy to the team, starting on the defensive end — diving on the floor and stuff like that,” Adams said. “Then the rest of the game just came to me.”
Adams scored a couple of buckets early in a second half that was a full-on dog fight. Both sides made gutsy hustle plays and big shots. Those two things came together for UCF on a highlight with 8:34 to play when Dre Fuller Jr. chased down a loose ball and quickly flipped it while sliding amid traffic on the floor to Darius Perry for a 3.
That shot was part of a stretch in which Perry nailed three 3-pointers in a 100-second span. The final one came from about 25 feet out and gave UCF its first lead of the game, 52-51, with 7:53 remaining. The Knights would gain another one-point lead after a layup from Adams with 5:29 on the clock. Perry and Adams combined for 28 points and nine assists on the night.
Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway on Isaiah Adams: "Isaiah has a bright future, man. Isaiah Adams is a player. He's gotten better and better every game. Coach [Dawkins] has a player on his hands." #UCF— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) March 13, 2021
But that would be UCF’s last meaningful field goal. Not that they couldn’t get great lowoks; the Knights had plenty of chances from point-blank range, but they missed a couple handfuls worth of layups and nine free throws. Memphis went on a 16-8 run to end the game and UCF’s season.
“The effort was there. The energy was there. We just didn’t make plays that we had to make. In a game like that against a team as good as they are, you’re going to have to execute better,” UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins said. “You’re going to have to execute around the basket, make your free throws, and you have to take care of the basketball. In all three of those areas, we weren’t as good as we had been most recently in the season.”
Johnny Dawkins on #UCF's emotions after the game: "All the guys are taking it hard ... but that's because everyone invested in what we were doing. When you invest the way we did, it's going to be a big disappointment when it's over. And that's how it should be, to be quite frank"— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) March 13, 2021
Adams said this loss “will be fresh in my mind next year.” But beyond just this one game, Dawkins hopes everyone on his team never forgets this weird and challenging season.
“Just really proud of our guys because I know this is probably the most difficult situation they would ever face in basketball based on what we went through this year. I just wanted to let them know that through all of it, I know this losing was tough, but just the experience that we shared together, it’s something that we’ll have for the rest of our lives, being able to draw back on this year of 2020 and 2021. It’s been an amazing year, and I think there’s life lessons we’ll all take from that.