John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Falls to UTEP in C-USA Quarterfinals


March 12, 2010

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By John Denton

TULSA, Okla. (UCFAthletics.com) - As exhilarating and fulfilling as Wednesday's defeat of SMU was for the UCF Knights, Thursday's lopsided loss to UTEP was equally deflating and humbling.

The Knights got an up-close look at Conference USA's top team, and the results were far from pretty. Any momentum that UCF had from its first-round victory was gone by the early stages of Thursday when UTEP systematically picked apart the Knights.

Top-seeded and 21st ranked UTEP stormed to a 28-point halftime lead with some dazzling shooting and never looked back in a 76-54 defeat of ninth-seeded UCF at Tulsa's BOK Center.

It brought a disappointing end to the season for the Knights, statistically one of the nation's youngest teams. Just a night earlier, UCF had routed SMU 69-53 for just the second C-USA tournament victory in school history. But this was never really in doubt after the first eight minutes of the first half.

``They really exposed us a lot and when there was pressure it seemed like all of our weaknesses came out,'' said UCF freshman forward Keith Clanton, who scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds. ``We have to learn to do a better job of handling the pressure from a team like this.''

UTEP, winners of 15 of 16 conference games during the regular season, shot a torrid 68 percent from the floor in the first half and 66.7 percent for the game. And UCF (15-17) gave the Miners (25-5) plenty of help with 12 first-half turnovers, leading to 15 more UTEP points.

``Teams haven't pressed us much lately and we just didn't handle their press very well at all,'' said UCF coach Kirk Speraw, who earlier in the season became the school's all-time winningest coach. ``The first 22 possessions we had 11 turnovers. That affects your rhythm and psyche, but clearly we just weren't mature enough to handle it.''

Fatigue was certainly a factor with UCF having played the late game the night before and UTEP coming off a bye.

UTEP led 15-3 early, 48-20 at the half and by as much as 31 points. And whatever chance UCF had went by the wayside late in the first half when Marcus Jordan (four points) rolled his ankle, P.J. Gaynor (four points) was drilled in the ribs by a stray knee and A.J. Rompza continued to hobble around on a knee sore with tendinitis.

Rompza played hard to the very end, contributing nine points, five assists and three steals. Drew Speraw, UCF's lone senior, played 11 minutes and handed out two assists.

Taylor Young and Isaac Sosa, who combined for 27 points and seven 3-pointers in the defeat of SMU, failed to score in the first half on Thursday. Young did hit a deep 3-pointer in the second half, and Sosa contributed 10 second-half points to keep the final margin respectable.

``It was totally frustrating for us because we never thought the game would go like this,'' Sosa said. ``We thought it would be a tight game, but we let it get away from us. In my opinion, UTEP is a very good team and a top 25 team. They are very athletic and they play well together.''

UTEP got 17 points from Jeremy Williams and C-USA Player of the Year Randy Culpepper scored 10 points before resting much of the second half. Culpepper played just 22 minutes, while starting center Derrick Caracter was on the floor for just 11 minutes.

On Friday, the Miners will face the host Tulsa Golden Hurricane, winners against Marshall in Thursday's third semifinal. Houston and Southern Miss, upset winners against Memphis and UAB, will meet in the other semifinal.

UTEP coach Tony Barbee is upset that his team has to play the early game today after playing the late game on Thursday. UTEP has already beaten Tulsa twice this season.

``I'm disappointed in the format because it puts us at a disadvantage,'' said Barbee, the C-USA Coach of the Year. ``No other tournament in the country does it this way, but we'll live with it.''

In the end, Speraw struggled with how to categorize a season that was filled with so many wild highs and lows. The Knights beat UMass in the opener and SEC foe Auburn in a 5-1 November, and the Knights were strong for parts of games against Notre Dame, Connecticut and South Florida. But a dismal 2-6 January and frustrating late losses to East Carolina and Southern Miss put a damper on the season.

``Our lack of focus comes back to bite us a lot,'' he said. ``But still you can see the potential in certain individuals and for the team. This game was frustrating, but I'm excited for the future of our team.''

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