Fans, coaches, and players alike had figured the final curtain of UCF Knights Men’s Hoops season had fallen. Yet amid players scheduling flights home for spring break, head coach Johnny Dawkins got his team on a bus to travel to the O'Connell Center in Gainesville to battle the Florida Gators for the first time in 10 years. The opening round of the 2023 NIT Tournament marked the beginning of UCF’s postseason with a tumbling of the Gators, 67-49.
Anyone who followed the Knights throughout the 2022-23 season, knows about freshman forward and projected NBA lottery pick Taylor Hendricks. The Gators had their own freshman force in forward Riley Kugel.
Kugel was the focus for Florida throughout the night putting up 13 points, but Hendricks took over in his own right taking advantage of Florida's missing forward Colin Castleton to injury. Hendricks 13 of his 17 points were in the first half as the Knights led at the half 35-26.
Going off in Gainesville!— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) March 16, 2023
: ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/RsMFKCMvrW
Guard CJ Kelly was an impact once again as he delivered 21 points on the night to lead the scoring hitting 14 of those in the second half. Not to be denied, guard Ithiel Horton did his part by posting 12 on the scoreboard. Horton also had three steals, but that was just the beginning of what UCF did on defense.
Defense was the Difference
The Knights' ability to contain Florida on the glass was where it started. They won that battle 39-29 leading in part to 40 points in the paint for UCF. As a team, the Knights had 13 steals forcing nine Gator turnovers in the contest’s first 10 minutes. Hendricks also had two punishing blocks at the rim to deny what seemed at first to be easy dunks.
LOCKDOWN D! That's nine forced turnovers already!— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) March 15, 2023
: ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/5NAybVCN7n
In the later portion of the game, Florida crept up managing to steal the ball 10 times as a team forcing both squads to end the night with 18 turnovers. The stat that the Gators could pull down to drown out was their three-point shooting.
UCF’s perimeter defense not only forced the turnovers to dig the early hole for their opponent but also forced them to make only four of their 24 attempts beyond the arc.
UCF shot the ball a full 20.5% better than Florida (52.7% to 32.2%) most of which can be attributed to Hendricks’ and Kelly’s hot hand shooting paired with the Gators' lack of open shots taken.
What’s Next for the Knights?
For all the close games that didn’t break their way during the regular season, all the injuries on the roster, and all the statistical unluckiness cited, the Knights had an opportunity for postseason play. They took it to shine against the Gators and now find bragging rights to argue for being the best team in the state.
Tay lurking and rejecting!— UCF Men’s Hoops (@UCF_MBB) March 16, 2023
: ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/goHb50k4P3
In order to rally that into an NIT quarterfinal berth, they’ll need to travel to Eugene to take on the Oregon Ducks.