John Denton's Knights Insider: Culpepper Too Much for Knights


Jan. 23, 2010

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By John Denton

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Just like in games earlier this season in which UCF hung tough early against Connecticut, Notre Dame and Marshall, the Knights had the lead 14 minutes in on Saturday against one of Conference USA's top teams in UTEP and great things seemed possible.

But as is so often is the case with a young basketball team those dreams died when UCF struggled mightily to make shots and UTEP's Randy Culpepper rained in one back-breaking 3-pointer after another.

It might be hard to believe when looking at UTEP's 96-59 destruction of UCF before a crowd of 6,413 at UCF Arena, but the Knights actually led the game 33-32 late in the first half.

But a second half in which UCF shot just 18.8 percent and Culpepper outscoring the Knights 25-18 all by himself led to an ugly afternoon. As happy as UCF coach Kirk Speraw was with his Knights in a tough road win in Houston on Wednesday, he was that upset with its second-half play on Saturday.

``I thought we had a really immature response to what happened in the second half,'' said Speraw of a UCF team that is statistically the nation's fourth youngest overall. ``We had five one-on-one games out there rather than one five-on-five game. We didn't execute well which translated us to not scoring and them getting off to a great start. And then we our lack of scoring affect our energy level on defense. And then it really popped.''

Coming off Wednesday's gutsy, grind-it-out victory in Houston, UCF hoped to put together a run in conference play with a second straight victory against an elite team. But the loss dropped the Knights to 10-9 overall and 2-3 in conference play.

Speraw, who tied Torchy Clark's school record for wins with 274 on Wednesday, failed in his first attempt to become UCF's all-time winningest basketball coach. The veteran coach was frustrated that his team could be so good and yet also so shaky in the midst of the same game.

``When we do things right, we're right there,'' he said. ``And when we don't, you see the results. That's proven time and time again with our performances against UConn, Notre Dame or 25 minutes against Marshall, one of the better ones in our league and we had a 10-point lead, but we can't sustain. We had a close game at the half (on Saturday) and we can't sustain. We've got to grow through that.''

UCF has a couple of days to regroup before facing C-USA rival SMU on the road on Wednesday. The Knights return to UCF Arena on Saturday to face C-USA powerhouse Tulsa on Saturday.

``I have confidence in our team that we'll be able to come together after this,'' said power forward A.J. Tyler, who scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the loss. ``We also need to mature so that we don't need a loss like this to make us bounce back and play well. We have to play well on a consistent basis.''

Up just 44-41 at the break, UTEP used a 16-4 run to start the second half and take control of the game. UCF missed its first eight shots of the second period and was down 11 before scoring its first points after the break.

And from there it only got worse as UTEP outscored UCF 38-13 over the first 15 minutes of the second half.

The dismal outcome ruined strong showings by freshman forward Keith Clanton and sophomore point guard A.J. Rompza. Clanton, a heralded freshman from Orlando, scored a career-high 19 points, pulled down six rebounds and held his own inside against UTEP star Derrick Caracter (eight points and nine rebounds).

Rompza had 13 points and four rebounds and his six steals will likely vault him into the top five in the country in that category. He came into the game tied for ninth in the nation and he now has 56 swipes in 19 games (2.94).

UCF freshman guard Marcus Jordan, whose game had grown in leaps and bounds in recent weeks, uncharacteristically struggled with his shot against UTEP. Jordan made all nine of his shots in the win against Houston earlier in the week and hit 16 of 22 shots the previous three games, but he missed all nine of his shots on Saturday. He finished with five points and four rebounds.

UTEP (13-5 overall, 4-1 in C-USA play) came to Orlando after ending Memphis' streak of consecutive Conference USA wins at 64. The Miners are among the favorites to win the league title, but remarkably lost at Houston a week ago. UTEP's nonconference losses have come against three ranked teams (Ole Miss, Texas Tech and BYU) and New Mexico State.

Culpepper scored 39 points, 25 of them coming in the second half. He made nine of 15 3-pointers with six of them coming after the break. He even elicited a cheer from the crowd when he finally missed from beyond the arc late in the game.

UCF stayed within striking distance in the first half on the strength of Rompza and Clanton. UCF trailed 44-41 at the break after Rompza and Clanton combined for 21 first-half points and assisted on six of the 13 field goals in the first 20 minutes.

UCF stood tough inside and outrebounded the taller Miners in the first half 22-17, but the Knights had trouble with turnovers (11) and free throw shooting (13 of 22) early on.

``They went with a bigger lineup and they are bigger than us and we did a good job of boxing out and rebounding early on,'' Tyler said. ``We were real positive at halftime and felt good about the game. We went out there ready, but it didn't happen for us. We've got to find a way to turn it around.''

Rompza, UCF's most fiery player was a terror on both ends of the floor early in the game. In the first four minutes, Rompza had two baskets, two assists and two steals to get UCF off to a 10-3 lead.

Clanton was aggressive and attacking against the 6-foot-9, 275-pound Caracter early on, hitting three of his five shots, getting to the free throw line six times and handing out three assists to go with his 10 points. Clanton's nifty no-look pass to Taylor Young for a back-door layup gave the Knights a 33-32 lead, their last lead of the day.

John Denton's Knights Insider appears several times per week on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.