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UCF’s Defense Could Be One of the Greatest Ever, But Face Its Toughest Challenge This Week

Knights are strangling opponents’ but must shut down USF this week to solidify tourney hopes

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 AAC Women’s Championship - South Florida v Central Florida
Masseny Kaba has led UCF’s defense all season
Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense wins championships, they say. In the case of the UCF Knights Women’s Basketball team, they hope that old adage finally comes true.

The Knights stand on the precipice of a truly amazing season. Despite COVID-19 looming over this year, Head Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s squad has put together a season that ranks among the greatest defensive teams of all-time.

As of this article’s publication, UCF is first in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 49.5 points per game:

Defense has become the Knights’ calling card. Since Coach Abe arrived, the Knights have consistently been one of the best defensive teams in the league. But this season is off-the-charts good:

UCF Defensive Rankings Under Coach Abe

Year PPG Allowed NCAA Rank AAC Rank FG% Allowed NCAA Rank AAC Rank Tunovers Forced NCAA Rank AAC Rank
Year PPG Allowed NCAA Rank AAC Rank FG% Allowed NCAA Rank AAC Rank Tunovers Forced NCAA Rank AAC Rank
2015-2016* 73.3 324th 11th 41.0% 249th 7th 14.9 139th 7th
2016-2017 56.4 21st 2nd 39.1% 128th 6th 19.2 33rd 1st
2017-2018 56.4 20th 2nd 37.0% 36th 3rd 18.2 56th 3rd
2018-2019 55.8 14th 1st 36.9% 40th 4th 19.5 35th 3rd
2019-2020 56.7 25th 2nd 38.9% 122nd 5th 20.0 26th 3rd
2020-2021 49.5 1st 1st 33.3% 4th 1st 19.6 31st 3rd
* - Joi WIlliams was UCF’s head coach in 2015-2016. This season was added for context. Source: NCAA

This is historic. In the history of NCAA Women’s Basketball competition (going back to 1982), only 13 teams have ever averaged holding their opponents to under 49.5 points per game for a whole season, and only 17 have averaged giving up less than 50 points per game. Six of them are UConn (Interestingly, one other was Coach Abe’s 2013 UAlbany team).

“It’s fun when we get stops,” said Tay Sanders after the Knights’ win over Temple on Saturday. “We pressure the ball, we’re active on defense, we’re moving, we play off each other — That’s what makes it fun on defense, when we’re playing together.”

The heart of the team’s success is the matchup zone - derisively dubbed “#TrashZone” by detractors. But Coach Abe brought it with her from Missouri State to Albany and now to UCF, and is seeing it flourish with this year’s team like never before.

“I think the reason it’s as successful as it is, is not a lot of people play the matchup [zone]. A lot of people play man, and so for us, we don’t have to worry about all the man plays,” Coach Abe said after the Temple win. “It stays consistent. There’s just not a lot of things you can do against our matchup, and to be honest, it’s very hard to simulate in practice for the other team.”

But it’s not a traditional matchup zone that is all the rage among the coaching circles from college to the NBA. The key is the pressure the Knights apply on the ball.

“It’s not like, ‘Sit back in a zone and don’t guard anybody,’” Coach Abe said. “We force people to think.”

And forcing people to think means forcing them into mistakes and hurried shots. Through three quarters against Temple on Saturday, UCF smothered the Owls, holding them to just 7/42 shooting — a paltry 16.7%.

Temple would recover somewhat to finish at 22%, making just 12 shots from the floor in the Knights’ 24-point victory.

The win gave the Knights a chance at winning the conference regular season title, if they can get past South Florida twice this week.

The Next Challenge

UCF and USF face each other at the Yuengling Center in Tampa on Tuesday on ESPN+. Should USF win, they clinch the top seed. However, should UCF win on Tuesday, then it comes down to a winner-take-all Thursday at Addition Financial Arena at 5 p.m. on ESPNU.

And there’s the rub: At 11-1 in the league, UCF is a half-game behind USF (12-1) thanks in part to a forfeit by Memphis that the conference bestowed upon the Bulls for reasons that are still unclear (the official word was “non-COVID health reasons”). So the Knights have to beat the Bulls twice in about 50 hours to wrest the conference regular season crown and the #1 seed in the conference tournament from them — but perhaps more importantly, solidify their chances of an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, should it come to that.

Such is the national perception of the post-UConn American that a team currently at 13-2 and tops in the nation in defense has to sweat out their fate at this point, but here we are.

Of course, if UCF plans to stake their claim to preeminence in The American, their historic defense will have to turn in arguably its two best performances in back-to-back games against their I-4 rivals to close out the regular season. Jose Fernandez’s Bulls are the top scoring team in The American, averaging 69.2 points per game, thanks to their conference-best rebounding (+9.3 boards per game rebounding margin), three-point shooting (#1 in The American in 3FGs made) and ball-handling (#1 in The American in assist/turnover ratio at +1.2).

And USF can sniff that elusive conference championship that UConn has held under lock and key since the inception of the conference. 15 of the last 17 years, the Bulls have made the postseason, bot not once have they come even close to a conference title, thanks to the Huskies. In three of the American’s first five years, USF finished second to UConn.

But more recently, the momentum has swung to the eastern side of I-4. UCF has finished in second place the last two seasons behind the Huskies, and ahead of USF.

With UConn now safely out of the way in the Big East, this week’s pair of games is a true showdown between the two most deserving claimants to the American Athletic Conference throne. Should UCF’s defense do what it has been doing to opponents, there should be little doubt about whether the Knights can take that crown.