COLUMBIA, S.C. (UCFKnights.com) – UCF fans had waited 14 years to get back here. They then had to wait six minutes and 23 seconds for their Knights to get on the board in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. It was okay, though. Everything worked out fine.
UCF’s stingy defense made it so that when Terrell Allen’s jumper in the lane finally put the Black and Gold on the board at the 13:37 mark, they were only trailing 5-2. The rust was off and the Knights got rolling.
Rolling to the tune of an 11-0 run that put UCF up 13-7 midway through the half, a lead the Knights didn’t relinquish the rest of the way.
“For us, we had to shake the nerves off and get in the flow of the game, and that’s what we did,” junior guard Aubrey Dawkins said after the game. “Once we got used to the flow, things started to click for us. We played good basketball, moved the ball, played unselfish, and good things usually happen when you do that.”
Things really started going well down the stretch of the first half as the Knights used another 10-0 spurt to take a 34-24 lead into the break.
“Offensively, I thought we made a lot of connecting plays,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said. “We shared the basketball. Guys found shots and rhythm shots they would normally take, and they were knocking them down tonight consistently.”
That was never more true than the start of the second half, as UCF continued its hot shooting from the end of the first, rattling off another nine straight to extend its run to 19-0 and open up the lead to 43-24 less than five minutes into the period.
“I thought we played some of our best basketball on both ends of the floor,” Coach Dawkins said. “I thought defensively, Tacko’s presence down there was amazing. I thought we rebounded well.”
Tacko Fall’s presence most certainly was amazing. The 7-foot-6 center was on display for the entire nation and he didn’t disappoint. The Knights, who run their defense around his ability to block and alter shots, held VCU scoreless for over 10 minutes during the 19-0 run with Fall corralling nearly every rebound to end its possession.
“We’ve been challenging Tacko all season long about really imposing his will on the game,” Dawkins said. “I think probably the last six weeks, you started to see a turn in that. I’m just really happy for him. I’m happy he’s realizing the type of impact he can have on both ends of the floor.”
Fall finished with 18 rebounds, five blocked shots and 13 points. The first two numbers are UCF NCAA Tournament records and he became the first Knight to record a double-double in the tourney.
“We took advantage of [our size advantage], and my teammates trusted me,” Fall said. “I was out there being aggressive, just like I’m supposed to do every night and just trying to make plays for us to win the ball game.”
Fall made plenty of plays and it was enough to make history. UCF withstood a late VCU run and cruised to the 73-58 victory, advancing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
“I think when I look back on it, it’s going to be meaningful,” Dawkins said. “I’m just really proud of our guys. They worked hard to put themselves in this position.”
BJ Taylor, who led the Knights with 15 points in the game, knows how big this was for the program and for himself, but he’s more interested in what’s next.
“It’s hard for me to talk about it right now because we’re in the moment, but it’s great for the program,” he said. “It’s a great win, but we’ll reflect on that after the season’s over. Right now, we’re not satisfied. We want to keep this thing going.”
Fall echoed his teammates sentiment, knowing there is still more basketball to be played.
“It means a lot to us, to me, to the fans,” Fall said. “Finally being able to pull it off after all these years has meant a great deal to us. But we’re not satisfied. We want to keep going as far as we can and we’re going to bring it every night no matter who we play against.”
Even if that’s the number one team in the nation. And that’s who it is. Ninth seeded UCF will take on top overall seed Duke Sunday evening at 5:15 p.m. from the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. The game will have coverage on CBS, Westwood One and FM 96.9 The Game.