John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Comfortable with Surroundings in El Paso

March 8, 2011

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By John Denton

EL PASO, Texas (UCFAthletics.com) - Little did the UCF's men's basketball team know it at the time, but when they were beating Florida and Miami in December that those moments were about so much more than simply grabbing some Sunshine State bragging rights.

Even early in the season, the Knights were making preparations for playing postseason games.

By scheduling Miami in south Florida and the University of Florida at a neutral site in Orlando, UCF coach Donnie Jones wanted his team to get a feel for playing elite competition in ultra-competitive venues.

The hope now is that those experiences - both of which resulted in landmark victories for the program - will pay off in the Conference USA tournament when ninth-seeded UCF faces eight-seeded East Carolina Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern.

``When we played those games early in the year we talked about it being a tournament-like atmosphere,'' Jones recalled. ``We played Miami in south Florida and we played Florida here in Orlando, and we talked about those games at the time being big opportunities for us. We're hoping now our guys can walk into UTEP's area and play to the same level that we did in those games.''

UCF (19-10) should certainly be familiar with its surroundings what with the team making its third trip to El Paso in the past six weeks. The Knights were in West Texas on Feb. 2, but their game against UTEP was postponed because of weather-related power issues in the area. They returned to UTEP 2½ weeks later and notched one of the biggest victories of the season by putting on a dazzling shooting display.

Back in El Paso now for a third time, the Knights will be staying in the same hotel near campus and playing on the same floor where it has already practiced three times. UCF junior point guard A.J. Rompza even joked that the team has earned a free airline flight because of all the miles they have put in going to and from El Paso.

``We've already had a couple of extra practices in that gym and I think it will help us be more comfortable than most teams,'' said UCF power forward Keith Clanton, who was named to C-USA's All-Conference Third Team on Monday. ``Obviously, we know about the travel there and we've played there at 11 o'clock in the morning, so we're used to that. I think we'll come out ready to play.''

Added Rompza: ``The UTEP trips help us a lot, but at the end of the day it comes down to playing basketball and who wants it more. We have to go there and execute.''

The Knights did plenty of executing down the stretch, winning five of their last seven games down the stretch. In that time, the Knights knocked UTEP and Southern Miss out of first place in the conference, while also beating Tulsa, SMU and Tulane.

Jones considers UCF's ability to fight out of its midseason slump one of his proudest moments at UCF so far. Even in a couple of narrow defeats, UCF's level of play went up and the team did not break mentally during its skid. Now, the Knights hit the tournament riding a wave of momentum that makes anything seem possible.

``We're playing our best basketball now. We've won five of our last seven against some of the best teams in our league. We've won 19 games with some good wins and we're healthy,'' Jones said. ``It's a new life for us now. I used to say all of the time that (regular-season games) were just practice games until tournament time. Everything that we've done all season has prepared us for this week. Now we have to take that and be able to put it into use this week.''

Part of that prep work, of course, was finding a way to win close games against Florida and Miami at neutral sites. UCF hung tough throughout the second half against the Gators and they beat a ranked team for the second time in school history. And against Miami, UCF battled back from a 12-point deficit and dominated the game's critical minutes in the second half.

Now, it's time to transfer those experiences over to this week's C-USA tournament. Jones has already told his team that it's played more at UTEP this season than any other C-USA school except the Miners. And Rompza said the talk of the locker room has been Houston's shocking run to the C-USA title last season by winning four games in four days. And Clanton knows the Knights have what it takes to make some serious noise in the tournament, starting with Wednesday game against East Carolina.

``The experience earlier in the year against Miami and Florida will help us a lot. They're like two powerhouse schools and we know if we can beat them that we can compete against anybody in the country,'' Clanton said. ``We have to play like we played against them and play up to our capabilities.''

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