As much as fans blame the struggles in the #7 UCF Knights Men’s Hoops 17-13 season on head coach Johnny Dawkins, there are those in the media who don’t agree. Multiple voices called the Knights a “dangerous spoiler” team in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
ESPN Analyst and AAC Tournament commentator Kevin Brown on the most recent Black & Gold Podcast even cited statistical evidence that UCF is the 4th “unluckiest” team in the nation this season. Unfortunately, they were able to find luck to advance to the semifinals.
Knights Survive and Advance past #10 SMU, 76-70
After losing to UCF at Addition Financial Arena back on January 8th by 32, the SMU Mustangs were stampeding early opening the game with a 9-2 run. That tone was maintained heading into the half as SMU led the Knights 36-28.
Star guard Zhuric Phelps who missed the first contest for the Mustangs was a huge difference-maker finishing with 21 points, seven assists, and three steals. UCF accounting for him defensively early left guard Zach Nutall with open looks to hit three triples and free throws for 12 points on the night all in the first half.
@Samuell getting #AmericanHoops x @SMUBasketball pic.twitter.com/LsRlUvCEHw— The American (@American_Conf) March 9, 2023
The SMU backcourt wasn’t the only place they improved since the previous meeting. They had 19 total rebounds on January 8th but led in rebounding 26-16 in the first 20 minutes.
To make matters worse for the Knights, guard Ithiel Horton missed seven shots and didn’t light the scoreboard until the back 20 minutes of action. He wasn’t the only one to find his stroke in the second half. CJ Kelly scored 18 of his 21 points in that time.
Battling with more defensive energy to surge back in the second half, with 1:12 left UCF led 69-68. That was when Horton hit the triple to finish with 15 points on an assist from Kelly to take the game out of reach. Kelly’s 6-of-6 from the charity stripe brought it home for the Knights.
Freshman sensation Taylor Hendricks also turned in 15 points while leading the Knights in rebounds with eight. Michael Durr also powered in nine points with six rebounds while Darius Johnson delivered nine points with a team-leading five assists.
SMU grabbed more boards as a team 36-31 but had more turnovers with 16 to UCF’s 9.
Tigers Eliminate UCF a 4th time in American Tournament, 81-76
Heading into the conference quarterfinal against the #2 Memphis Tigers, the tempo by both teams was far faster than in the UCF’s previous game. The Knights had 12 turnovers in the first half alone with six by Johnson. This was the single biggest reason that UCF was down at the half, 40-30.
As a team, the Tigers recorded nine steals as a result of their explosive pace and tenacious defense. Memphis forward DeAndre Williams was a force on offense that capitalized on the Tigers’ defensive efforts. He poured in 35 points and 13 rebounds for a double-double.
ALL. DAY.#AmericanHoops x @Memphis_MBB pic.twitter.com/GFouWQt5yc— The American (@American_Conf) March 11, 2023
While Williams was a force in the front court, it could be argued that Tiger guard Kendric Davis had the biggest impact. The stats show him with 32 points and seven assists with only two turnovers, but it was his controlling of the game's tempo offensively that set the table for their success and UCF’s struggles. The pair combined went 9-of-13 from beyond the arc.
The Knights stayed in the fight by hitting the glass hard out-rebounding Memphis, 42-27. This helped them to tie the game up at 47 with 12:13 left in the game on a triple by Johnson. Despite eight turnovers, Johnson turned in 15 points with four assists before fouling out late.
heatin up #AmericanHoops x @UCF_MBB pic.twitter.com/UeXsi6pfGt— The American (@American_Conf) March 11, 2023
Kelly was definitely the featured performance for the Knights putting up 28 points, three assists, a block, a steal, and seven rebounds with 4-for-5 from three. Michael Durr hit 10 points with eight boards to attack Memphis in the paint. Hendricks led UCF with nine rebounds but struggled shooting with five points on 2-for-12 from the field with 0-for-5 from three. Horton turned in 10 points as well to help in the comeback attempt shooting four-of-14.
The Big 12 is Coming
For all the pains that UCF has endured as a program this year, Dawkins’ biggest challenge has yet to come as the Knights complete their tenure in the American. That is, of course, if he is still the head coach in Orlando.
That being said the Big 12 is a new chapter with more challenging competition and opportunity for the team to grow. The program's player nucleus has the potential to be the strongest it's been in years for players with eligibility remaining. While Hendricks is expected to head to the NBA Darius Johnson, Ithiel Horton, and CJ Walker all have remaining eligibility.