Despite being down two key players, the Knights (12-4, 3-1 AAC) turned a nine-point halftime lead into one of the team’s most dominant victories so far this season.
According to Ithiel Horton, things clicked for the team in the locker room thanks to its older players.
“Older guys came up, started talking and they were like, ‘Listen, man, we got to lock it in right now,’” Horton said. “‘We could have a defensive masterpiece.’”
No DJ or CJ? No Problem
C.J. Walker will miss the remainder of the 2022-23 season due to injury.https://t.co/4spibMOWU5— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) January 8, 2023
Earlier in the day, the team officially announced that forward C.J. Walker’s leg injury will sideline him for the rest of the team. According to Head Coach Johnny Dawkins, Walker, a senior, will be able to redshirt this season and return for the 2023-24 season.
“We’re gonna miss a lot because of his absence, but for his overall future in the sport, I think it’s more important for him to just get himself healthy, and then we’ll move forward in the future,” Dawkins said.
The team was also without Darius Johnson on Sunday, who was spotted wearing a boot on his left foot on the Knights bench. His injury is less severe, Dawkins said, ruling the guard day-to-day.
Even with Johnson and Walker out, the Knights showcased its depth. Two bench players, Tyem Freeman and Brandon Suggs scored double-digit points. Overall, UCF’s bench players outscored SMU’s, 31-19.
“We just want to make sure that they stay sharp like they did today and they stay ready for their opportunities because no one can predict from day to day what’s going to happen in our sport,” Dawkins said. “Guys get injured, things happen, and we need to have a next-man-up mentality and I thought that showed this afternoon.”
A Pair of Firsts For a Pair of Guards
With Johnson out, Jayhlon Young received minutes he had not seen since early December. The JUCO transfer turned that playing time into his first double-double in a UCF uniform with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
“Honestly, it felt good,” Young said. “I didn’t know until the last minute, they told me I had one rebound when I came out the last time. I was trying to go back in, but apparently, I had 10, so.”
Jay leaving it all out there! pic.twitter.com/4xDKHVFOB3— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) January 8, 2023
Dawkins said that he is trying to get the team to make a habit of guards like Young contributing to rebounds.
“When you have perimeter guys going and really rebounding on both ends of the floor, that’s where you can make your biggest jump,” Dawkins said.
Young was not alone in setting UCF career bests on Sunday. Horton said he had the best game of his Knights career against the Mustangs.
Thanks to going 7-14 from the floor, 4-9 from beyond the arc, and 3-4 from the free-throw line, the Pittsburgh transfer set a new season-high of 21 points.
In total, for the first time since the season-opening loss to UNC Asheville, five Knights reached double-digit points against SMU: Horton, Young, Freeman, Suggs, and Taylor Hendricks.
Freeman scored 11 of his points in the second half alone, finishing off a game where he went 4-5 from the floor, 2-2 beyond the arc, and 3-6 from the free-throw line.
Highlight reel hoops happening rn pic.twitter.com/QpdrnLlnur— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) January 8, 2023
While the Knights outscored the Mustangs in the second half, 51-28, Dawkins said the team hangs its hats defensively.
“All you can do is try to search out great shots, and that’s what we try to do, try to search out great shots,” Dawkins said. “We’re gonna make them some nights and some nights we aren’t, but defensively it should be no excuse because it’s not like missing the rim shooting the basketball. Defensively, you should be able to lock in and really guard hard.”
The win gives UCF back-to-back conference victories after coming up short against No. 3 Houston.
Horton said that while every conference game is important, UCF’s next game, a home tilt against the Penny Hardaway-led Memphis, would help solidify the team’s spot in The American.
The game tips off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.