Around this time last year, the UCF men’s basketball team was sitting at 14-0 and ranked No. 18 in the country to start its season.
Then, they met the Houston Cougars, who beat the Knights 76-71 and it began an eight-game losing streak that ultimately sent UCF’s (13-3, 3-0 C-USA) season into a downward spiral.
This time around, it was a different story.
Sparked by an all-around dominant second half performance, the Knights won their fifth straight game, beating the Cougars 74-63 Wednesday night at the UCF Arena.
Although it was a team effort, the Knights were guided by much-improved sophomore Isaiah Sykes, who exploded in the second half with 15 points and finished with a double-double of 21 points and 14 rebounds. With the 21 points, Skyes already has 13 double-digit scoring games compared to last year when he had a total of two.
Sykes charged the seventh-largest attendance (7,862) in UCF history with two electrifying dunks that helped the Knights pull away from Houston (9-7, 1-2 C-USA).
“Isaiah Sykes was the man tonight with those 11 offensive rebounds. But, everyone on our team contributed, and that’s what you’re always looking for,” Associate Head Coach Shawn Finney said.
The Knights improved to 3-0 under Finney, who is filling in for head coach Donnie Jones as he served the final game of his three-game, team-enforced suspension. Despite the perfect record, Coach Finney gave most of the credit to Coach Jones and how well-prepared he has the Knights.
“Coach Jones has prepared us for this moment all season. We came in this game ready to compete and play. We came in the last three games prepared,” Finney said. “This is a testament to Coach Jones. Our team can go out and operate without him… That’s how well prepared he has them. This is really about Coach Jones; this is not about Shawn Finney. It’s a testament to what he’s done with this basketball team.”
Despite the current win streak, UCF is in the midst of losing two key role players in the last five days, but were able to overcome that to improve to a perfect 10-0 at home this season, as well as their 15th overall consecutive win in Orlando dating back to last year.
Earlier on Wednesday, it was announced that senior Dwight McCombs was suspended for the remainder of the season per university policy, which is a mere four days after the Knights lost senior point guard Jeff Jordan due to “personal reasons.”
“I know us in the frontcourt- we had to step it up with one of our fellow teammates down,” forward Josh Crittle said. “I know we had to come in and make up for it and play harder. I knew I was going to have to play some more minutes. These guys have been on my back all week about getting ready to play and getting your mind focused.”
The Knights didn’t appear to have any emotional hangover from the departures, ultimately pulling away from Houston with excellent rebounding and defense to notch their best start in league play since the 2008-2009 season at 3-0.
While an overall solid team performance helped the Knights earn the victory, it was the UCF rebounding that really told the story of the game. The Knights ate Houston alive on the offensive glass, grabbing 27 offensive boards and outrebounding the Cougars 44-34 overall.
“Looking back at the game, you got to give our team a lot of credit. They executed a great game plan,” Finney said. “We really wanted to defend them, and we wanted to attack the offensive glass… It was a great team effort; we shared the basketball. Offensive rebounds was a big key to tonight, and we defended. The guys did a great job of that.”
Sykes led the offensive rebounding, with 11 of his 14 boards coming offensively.
If it weren’t for the aggressiveness on the glass and on defense, the Knights very well could have lost the game.
They shot 43 percent, including a woeful three-of-21 from the three-point line in the game, while allowing the Cougars to shoot 48 percent (25-of-52) and four-of-nine from beyond the arc.
However, UCF swarmed the boards and played lock down defense in the second half that resulted in 15 Houston turnovers, ultimately enabling the Knights to secure the victory.
Keith Clanton also came up big for UCF, posting a double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds, in which eight of those boards came offensively. He also had five assists and two blocks.
Junior Marcus Jordan contributed with 13 points, while Crittle chipped in with 10 points and four rebounds.
With the 3-0 record to start Conference-USA play, it is safe to say UCF has put last year’s nightmare conference collapse behind them, and they are looking like legitimate competitors for the conference crown.
The Knights return to action Saturday and will get Coach Jones back from suspension to face his former team, the Marshall Thundering Herd at 6 p.m. in Huntington, West Virginia.