At the beginning of the year, pundits and analysts alike picked UCF Knights Women’s Hoops to struggle. With a new head coach in Sytia Messer and a mass exodus of key players, the challenges were only beginning. Injuries plagued the Knights after a 10-3 out-of-conference start to where they went a 4-11 within the American and sat at a 10 seed heading into the tournament. But by winning two out of their last three games in the regular season and getting healthy at the right time, they rode a wave that led to a commendable tournament performance.
Jewet was a Jewel against the Golden Hurricane
After concluding the season losing to them on the road, the Knights battled the #7 Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the opening round. Hoping to keep the season alive in Fort Worth, Texas, the Knights were able to weather the storm, 69-53
As a veteran on this year’s squad from her time as a reserve player with last year’s iconic AAC tournament-winning team, Laila Jewett made the most of her opportunity to contribute to this year’s effort. Jewett scored 12 of her 20 points with six assists.
For all the media attention paid to Tulsa’s 1st Team All-Conference forward sophomore Temira Poindexter who put in 14 points in the first two quarters, Jewett did her part to give the Knights the 30-29 lead at the half.
The Golden Hurricane’s efforts were stymied when Poindexter was hit with a technical after throwing a ball at an official in the 1st half and was ejected for an intentional foul where she pulled UCF freshman point guard Sierra Godbolt’s hair. Tulsa star left the game with close to 4 minutes left with 16 points, five rebounds, three assists, and a steal.
The key to UCF’s first-round success was their best third-quarter performance of the year. At the time in many games where the Knights struggled, they outscored Tulsa 24-14. That 24-point mark is tied for their highest-scoring 3rd quarter performance of the season.
This was made possible by solid performances all over the floor. Over and above Jewett’s contribution, guard Mya Burns finished with 19 points and five rebounds while Rachael Ranke had 10 points with four boards as well. Combining all that with Godbolt’s 10 assists to tie the single-game tournament record, this backcourt had its best game of the season.
And that’s without accounting for “Old Faithful” herself, center Destiny Thomas. Despite not being found on any all-conference team listings, Thomas recorded a 13th double-double for this season with 10 points and a game-leading 12 rebounds.
Tigers Clawing at the Glass
Round 2 of the tournament was a rematch against a #2 Memphis Tigers team who beat the Knights in Tennessee, 50-48. Facing the Knights with their highest seed in program history under head coach Katrina Merriweather, the Tigers repelled the Knights' charge, 48-46.
Points were at a premium with the halftime score favoring UCF, 25-16. While the Knights struggled from the field shooting 28.8%, scores beyond the arc made their impact. They hit 5-of-11 including one from post player Tay Gibson in that time. Gibson’s third triple on the year helped her finish with a team-high with nine points, five rebounds, and a block.
Unfortunately for the Knights, third-quarter struggles rose again and the three-well dried up in the second half as they went 1-for-7 from beyond the arc scoring only six in the third. To make matters worse, they also suffered a 4:30 scoring drought within the game's final five minutes in the 4th quarter when scored 12 total.
Meanwhile, guard Emani Jefferson and forward Shelbee Brown the game’s only double-digit scorers pounced for the Tigers' comeback after scoring only eight in the first two quarters as a team. Jefferson posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds as well as three steals and three assists while Brown turned in 10 points with six rebounds, a block, two steals, and an assist.
The most damaging stat on the evening for UCF was rebounds despite Thomas contributing 10 for the Knights. The Tigers won that category 48-39 that they turned into 14 second-chance points.
Still Building . . .
One thing head coach Sytia Messer has preached like gospel — even after a tournament victory was that they are still growing.
Despite enduring a rebuild, and nearly pulled off a second upset with a path to the final that saw #1 USF already eliminated. While there are no trophies for moral victories, Messer’s clear message to Knight nation is that the best is yet to come as they head into the Big 12.