John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Opens Holiday Classic with Win


Dec. 29, 2011

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By John Denton

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Encapsulated in one dazzling sequence Thursday night, UCF sophomore guard Isaiah Sykes showed why his game can be both alluring and agonizing for the Knights.

In a matter of seconds, Sykes ripped an inbounds pass, sprung up for a thunderous left-handed dunk, absorbed an accidental hand to the jaw from a foe and swung from the rim long enough to merit a technical foul from the referee.

Chalk it up simply to growing pains from a promising young athlete who regularly delivers both jaw-dropping plays and head-scratching moments.

The positives far outweighed the negatives on Thursday from Sykes, who scored 20 points, grabbed nine rebounds and swiped four steals in UCF's 80-70 workmanlike defeat of Stetson before 4,894 fans in first-night play of the UCF Holiday Classic.

``That was just me playing (defense) and hustling. The play happened so fast I didn't even realize what had happened at first,'' Sykes said of his dunk and technical foul sequence. ``That was just me out there playing hard.''

Sykes, a Detroit native who plays with a distinctive edge and toughness about him, was back in the rotation for the Knights after falling out of favor a week ago in a loss at Louisiana-Lafayette. The emotional Sykes played just nine minutes in that game, but was on the floor for all of the key moments of Thursday's victory.

``He's a different player and he learned a lot from the last game,'' UCF coach Donnie Jones said of Sykes. ``I was really proud of him. He obviously had 20 points, but it was more about his energy, his body language and toughness. He affected the game defensively and offensively and had a complete game. I'm just proud of how he handled adversity and bounced back.''

UCF (9-3) also got 26 points from junior guard Marcus Jordan. And the Knights' depth and versatility is quickly become more evident as four players reached double digits in scoring for just the third time all season.

Keith Clanton, who lost a contact lens late in the game, added 11 points and 12 rebounds, while Tristan Spurlock chipped in 13 points and two 3-pointers.

``We all had that terrible feeling after losing to Louisiana-Lafayette and everybody just came out in this game and wanted to be aggressive,'' said Jordan, who made eight of 13 shots, drilled four 3-pointers and nailed six of seven free throws. ``We shot the ball really well tonight and when we turned our defense up the margin increased.''

UCF defeated Stetson, its former rivals from the Atlantic Sun Conference, for a 12th straight time. UCF also won its 18th straight nonconference game at home and will go for the 19th straight victory Friday at 7 p.m. at UCF Arena. The Knights have yet to lose at home this season, going 7-0 at UCF Arena.

The Knights shot 51.8 percent from the floor and hit seven 3-pointers. UCF led by as much as 18 points and Jones was disappointed afterward that the Knights didn't extend the lead and allowed Stetson back into the game.

UCF will finally have its full roster together for the first time all season on Friday when A.J. Rompza returns. The fiery senior will provide some much-needed depth at point guard and allow the Knights to move Jordan into more of a scoring role from the wing.

``Rompza will be like a freshman, trying to get the rust off,'' said Jones, who plans to initially use the point guard off the bench. ``He would be starting if he hadn't been suspended. He's done the things that we've asked of him with an amazing attitude. I've been proud of his maturity and we need him to be our quarterback.''

Stetson (4-7) entered Thursday's game having played one of the toughest schedules in the country. The Hatters lost to Florida State, Florida and Indiana and dropped a home-and-home series against Charleston Southern.

UCF was playing for the first time since Dec. 21, and the time off seemed to refresh the Knights' offense. They made 15 of their first 25 shots, including five of 10 from the 3-point stripe, to pull away from Stetson. UCF led 40-29 at the half thanks to 55.2 percent shooting.

Spurlock, who is becoming increasingly more comfortable in UCF's system after transferring from Virginia, drilled two 3-pointers in the first half. Meanwhile, Sykes had nine first-half points - seven in a row during one stretch to vault UCF into a 25-18 lead.

``We knew coming out that we'd be a little winded, so we wanted to get through that first stretch and get to our second wind,'' Sykes said of UCF's break between games. ``(Bouncing back on Thursday) was good for me, but it was also good for my team. When they try to solo (Jordan) and trap him it makes more space for players like me. It opens it up for me and other players.''

Jordan had the play of the first half when he crossed up Liam McInerney off the dribble and switched hands on a layup to avoid a block attempt by Willie Green. The play drew a loud ovation from the crowd and capped a 12-point first half for Jordan. He said afterward that the Knights are hoping to use these tournament games to ramp up their intensity for Conference USA play, which begins on Jan. 4 with UCF hosting Tulane.

``These are two big games for us coming off the holidays after everybody being home and enjoying time with their families and eating a lot of food,'' Jordan joked. ``So we need these two games to prepare us for conference play. Those are great teams we'll be playing, so these games will have like a conference atmosphere to us.''

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