Senior point guard A.J. Rompza had an illustrious four-year career at UCF. He made sure it ended in a fitting manner.
With a first-round bye in the upcoming Conference-USA Tournament at stake, the UCF men’s basketball team was able to hold off a late UAB rally to down the Blazers, 71-63, Saturday and secure the fourth seed in the league on Senior Night at the UCF Arena.
Prior to the game, UCF honored Rompza and P.J. Gaynor in the senior duo’s final game at the UCF Arena in front of the Knights faithful.
“We were real determined- that was a big thing coming in that coach talked about. We wanted to end the seniors out on a good note. It was the last time they played in front of the home crowd, so everybody wanted to come out and play aggressive and unselfish,” junior Keith Clanton said.
Rompza didn’t disappoint, posting a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists, as well as four rebounds and two steals to finish his career at UCF on a strong note. Even more fitting, the two swipes that Rompza recorded tied him for No. 2 all-time at UCF in career steals.
“It was huge (to go out this way). I told the guys we had to play together. Me and P.J. had the beginning, they will introduce us, but at the end of that that we have to play basketball,” Rompza said. “We’re playing for something, playing for that fourth spot. I didn’t want to get caught up in the whole senior night thing. We had to come out ready to play, and I thought we responded well.”
Rompza’s impact on the program is immeasurable, so it almost seemed like a storybook ending to finish with a victory and a double-double effort.
“I was trying to do whatever I could to win this game and get it over with because it’s been a rough three or four days sleeping wise, just thinking about everything. It’s almost like a monkey off my back,” Rompza said referring to an emotional final game in a Knights uniform.
Clanton led four Knights players in double figures with 22 points and six rebounds, while Marcus Jordan broke out of his scoring slump for 16 points on 50 percent shooting, to go along with six boards. Isaiah Sykes, who suffered a non-serious injury at the end of the game, chipped in 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists for UCF.
The Knights notched a season sweep over the Blazers, who made it to the NCAA Tournament last year, beating them for just the second time in program history. UAB had been 7-0 all-time against UCF before this season, until the Knights broke the streak with a 48-41 win on the road back on Jan. 21.
With so much on the line, UCF made sure to come out of the gates with a bang.
In the first nine minutes of the first half, the Knights were scorching hot from three-point land, shooting an incredible 70 percent (seven-for-10), while 18 of their first 24 points came from beyond the arc.
Clanton, Rompza, Jordan and Sykes all had recorded at least one long ball as UCF used a balanced scoring attack to take a big lead in the first half.
“They are the No. 1 defensive team in the league coming in. We knew it would be difficult to get stuff in the paint. We needed to make the extra pass,” head coach Donnie Jones said. “A.J. Rompza had 10 assists, one turnover tonight- he really made the extra pass. I thought we shared the ball well tonight, but we had good looks. We’ve had good looks, but we haven’t made shots. But, tonight those went down.”
By halftime, the Knights had opened up a 46-26 advantage, shooting 15-of-26 from the field, 10-of-17 from three-point land, while limiting the Blazers to just nine-of-32 (28%) shooting from the field and five-of-16 from beyond the arc.
However, the strong shooting and big lead would evaporate as the Blazers started the second half on a 13-5 run over the first six minutes to get within 12 points.
The Knights would maintain a double-digit lead over the next 11-12 minutes, until a furious UAB run would cut the UCF lead to six points with 40 seconds left in the contest. But, that’s the closest the Blazers would get, as the Knights never surrendered their lead and would close the game out with free throws.
Overall, UCF shot 24-of-49 from the field and finished 11-of-23 from deep, but were just one-of-six in the second half from the perimeter.
Jordan Swing led UAB with 17 points and six boards, while Quincy Taylor and Cameron Moore added 13 points a piece. Moore also had nine boards in the game.
Although the Knights played a strong overall game, they wouldn’t have won without their defense as UAB had a really strong second-half showing. They outscored UCF 37-25 in the final half, while limiting the Knights to nine-of-23 shooting from the field. In addition, UAB got 19 points off of UCF turnovers, and notched 17 second-chance points.
Fortunately, the UCF defense was able to clamp down, limiting the Blazers to 38 percent shooting from the field and just 30 percent from beyond the arc in the game, while making some key stops in the final minute of the contest.
This is the Knights third top-four finish since joining Conference-USA, and it is the program’s highest win total since 2006 when they won 22 regular-season games.
UCF finished an incredible 16-1 on their home floor, which is the program’s best-ever home finish and a single-season record for home triumphs.
With the win, the Knights put themselves in good position for the C-USA Tournament as they will receive the aforementioned elusive first-round bye. They will return to action Thursday night when the league tournament starts in Memphis, hoping to gain an automatic bid into the Big Dance with a conference championship.
“Our players have played with great emotion throughout the season. This is the second part of the journey- you have the non-conference schedule then the conference schedule and now the real fun begins,” Jones said. “This is where March Madness gets really exciting. This is what they play for all-year long. This has been a great ride for a team here…It’s a great opportunity for our team here to have a little break before we go play on Thursday.”