John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Matures, Tops Tulane


Feb. 13, 2010

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By John Denton

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's young basketball team, statistically one of the most inexperienced squads in the country, grew up on Saturday against Tulane.

Down by eight points with 9 minutes to play, UCF seemed to be facing what would have qualified as a bad home loss. But the young Knights responded well to the pressure-packed situation, delivering a game-turning 13-1 run and closing the afternoon with a 23-5 stretch to beat Tulane 62-54.

A UCF Arena crowd of 5,122 roared with approval when sophomore point guard A.J. Rompza hit a step-back 3-pointer with 3:50 to play to give the Knights (12-12 overall, 4-6 in Conference USA play) a 49-48 lead, their first advantage since late in the first half. Rompza later had a slashing layup and another 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to push UCF to the victory.

Suddenly, a UCF team that struggled at times this season learning how to close out games has played well in the tense moments of the second half. A Knights squad that failed to score on 14 of 15 possessions during one stretch of the second half closed the game by getting points out of 11 of the final 12 possessions.

``I think it is a sign of growth,'' UCF coach Kirk Speraw said. ``That's two games in a row. We were down 11 at Memphis and came back and took the lead. That was a matured step for us. And tonight, to do it after being down eight. ... We just found a way. It obviously wasn't very pretty, but we gutted it out, got some stops. It shows a sign of maturity and competitiveness that we need to have.''

UCF won because it got contributions from several places, and not necessarily the usual places with Keith Clanton (seven points) and A.J. Tyler (four points) being held in check.

Sophomore forward David Diakite responded to Speraw calling three straight plays for him and he scored six straight UCF points to start the game-changing 13-1 run. Isaac Sosa hit a key 3-pointer during the run, had 13 points and delivered his second big game in the past week.

And true freshman guard Marcus Jordan drew a charge and got to the rim with a nifty drive for a layup that all but sealed the victory with 1:12 to play. Jordan had eight points, four rebounds and three steals in 34 minutes.

``Now that the season is coming to an end, I really think we're playing a lot better together,'' Jordan said. ``I think we're starting to learn what everybody can do and we're putting it to good use.''

Rompza played like a leader determined not to let his team lose, staying on the floor for a career-high 39 minutes. He made six of eight shots, hit three 3-pointers and handed out four assists. He also grabbed three steals to strengthen his spot at No. 5 in the nation in swipes.

Up next for UCF is a rematch against Houston on Tuesday night at UCF Arena. The Knights won in Houston 78-71 on Jan. 20 and another victory could go a long way toward the Knights establishing some momentum down the stretch.

``We have a (six)-game season right now. I told the guys during pregame meal that it's not how you start, it's how you finish,'' the fiery Rompza said. ``The beginning of the season we started OK, the middle we struggled and now we're at the end and have to finish strong and go on a roll. When you finish strong people are scared of you in conference (tournament) play. Then, you become a team that people fear.''

Former UCF star Jermaine Taylor, now a member of the Houston Rockets, was in attendance at Saturday's game. The reining Conference USA Player of the Year, who averaged 26.2 points a game last season for the Knights, scored four points in 18 minutes against the Miami Heat last week. He is averaging 2.4 points in 16 games this season for the Rockets.

UCF trailed by as much as six points in the first half, but managed to get the score tied at 30-all by the break. The Knights followed a troubling trend of getting off to a poor start to the second half.

But a critical point came when Speraw got the Knights out of their man-to-man defense and switched to a zone to keep Tulane's athletic forwards from getting to the rim so much. Of Tulane's first 47 points, 26 of them came in the paint and most of them on layups.

``I think that did (change the tempo). We had to do something to stop them from getting to the front of the rim,'' said Speraw, the winningest coach in UCF history with 276 victories. ``I think they scored four of the first five possessions of the second half and all of them were right there at the front of the rim. So we had to do something. That at least made them think about what they were doing and maybe it changed their tempo enough.''

The tempo change helped, and UCF's grit and efficiency down the stretch did the rest. A Knights team with just three upperclassmen looked like it was all grown up down the stretch, and Rompza said the improvement is no illusion.

``I think with our team, we know that we're getting better,'' Rompza said. ``We're more of a team now. There are going to be times that we struggle, but I feel a lot better about our team now. We're starting to get into a groove with each other and it shows.''

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