MEMPHIS– UCF’s 64-54 victory over UAB may not have been aesthetically pleasing, but the team from Orlando did enough to advance to their first C-USA Semifinal appearance.
“We’re excited about the win,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “It’s the first time in our school’s history that we’ve advanced to the semifinals of this tournament and it’s a great step for our program.”
UCF had history working against them as the Fed Ex Forum has been a house of horrors for the black and gold. They had won just one out of eight games in this building prior to Thursday night and that lone victory came six years ago against a bad ECU team. On top of their struggles in the city famous for barbeque, the Knights had the unenviable task of defeating the same team three times in one season, as they posted 48-41 and 71-63 victories against UAB previously.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Jones said. “We had a lot of guys step up here tonight and do some great things and we beat a very good UAB team.”
The Knights had no 20-point scorer, no electrifying dunks or even a highlight reel block. What they did have was great team defense, ball movement and timely shots.
“It always helps when shots are going in and the guys seem to play a little harder defensively,” Coach Jones told reporters.
UCF raced out to an early lead and never looked back as the Knights had assists on 11 of their first 16 baskets.
“The key right now for us being so successful is just moving the ball and not really caring who gets the shots,” senior point guard A.J. Rompza explained. “I think that’s why we’re being successful right now.”
The Knights were the definition of a balanced scoring attack as they had five players with eight or more points with Keith Clanton leading the way with 14. UCF was able to get a great effort on both ends of the court from power forward Josh Crittle, who scored eight points on 4 for 6 shooting.
“Josh (Crittle) is a very capable scorer and I thought Josh gave us some huge minutes tonight and we’re going to need those from him tomorrow night,” Jones said.
As well as the Knights played in the first half offensively, they turned up the defensive intensity in the second half, holding UAB to just 18.2 percent shooting (6-33). UCF frustrated the Blazers leading scorer, Cameron Moore as they held him to just six points on 0-8 shooting.
Battling a wrist injury suffered in the regular season finale last Saturday, UCF forward Isaiah Sykes came off the bench to score 10 points and grab six rebounds.
“Once you see a shot go down it gives you confidence. I just tried not to think about it,” Sykes explained when asked about his wrist injury.
As difficult as it was for UCF to beat UAB a third time, a team they hadn’t defeated prior to this season, tomorrow’s task will be even more colossal. They take on a top-seeded Memphis Tigers team that has won this tournament each of the last four times they’ve hosted it. Memphis cruised to an 84-55 victory over UCF just over a week ago.
“We’re going up against a great team, obviously,” Sykes said. “We just have to come out and execute and limit our turnovers and do whatever we need to do to get the win.”
The Knights will hope for a repeat of January 18th’s meeting with Memphis as UCF posted a 68-67 victory in Orlando. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. eastern.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie