John Denton's Knights Insider: Knights Take Tourney Title as Team Leader Returns


Dec. 30, 2011

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By John Denton

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Ever a man in motion and one not afraid to make noise, A.J. Rompza streaked down the sidelines, slapped fives with teammates on the bench, tugged at his jersey and let out a roar as the crowd erupted with noise.

Suddenly, all seemed right with UCF's basketball program once again with Rompza here, there and seemingly everywhere Friday night.

UCF celebrated the much-anticipated return of Rompza with a 65-54 defeat of Rhode Island in the championship game of the UCF Holiday Classic. The excitable, electric point guard scored just seven points, but he had a huge impact on the offense with six drive-and-dish assists.

Many of the 5,230 fans in attendance at UCF Arena yelled Rompza's name and applauded his every move on Friday night.

``(Rompza) just makes it much easier on everybody by taking pressure off other guys,'' said UCF's Isaiah Sykes, who was voted the tournament's Most Valuable Player after scoring 20 points on Thursday and 14 more in Friday's victory. ``Rompza did a good job of bringing the ball up, getting us into our sets, finding other guys and using his hustle and energy.''

Out 12 games because of a NCAA-mandated suspension, Rompza returned to the starting lineup and had a lot to do with UCF's balanced scoring. Having the point guard back allowed Marcus Jordan (12 points) to play more shooting guard. And forwards Sykes, Keith Clanton (13 points) and Tristan Spurlock (nine points) fed off Rompza's playmaking abilities.

``A.J. was excited and I was worried that he'd be too hyped up, but he did a great job of making the game easy tonight for a lot of our guys,'' UCF coach Donnie Jones said. ``It allowed us to get Marcus off the ball and give him some freedom. And he got a lot of other guys some easy baskets. We're excited to have him back because it's the first time that that groups played together since the summer. The chemistry with them will get better as time goes on.''

The Knights (10-3) improved to 8-0 at home this season and they have now won 19 straight non-conference games at UCF Arena over the past two seasons. Jones has not lost a non-league game at home since taking over the program.

UCF is now off until Wednesday night when it hosts Tulane in the Conference USA opener for both teams. The Green Wave have been one of the surprise teams in C-USA this season, racing to a 12-2 start.

UCF knows that a strong showing in conference play could very well decide their chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament in March.

``This should be the time where we come together closer and work harder so we can try to win conference and do what we can to make the tournament,'' Sykes said. ``We're not focusing on the tournament; we're going one game at a time this season.''

Sykes, a sophomore from Detroit, is easily UCF's most improved player this season. As a freshman, he scored just 127 points in 32 games last season. This season, he's already scored 146 points in just 13 games for an average of 11.2 points per game. His MVP trophy was affirmation of all the work he put in over the summer to improve his scoring skills.

``This means a lot to me because I've worked hard,'' Sykes said. ``Every day in practice I'm going against Marcus, Rompza, Jeff (Jordan), Keith and Tristan and we make it hard for each other in practice. So sometimes on the court it's easier for us.''

Rhode Island's defeat of James Madison on Thursday night set up a rematch against UCF. The Knights defeated the Rams 66-54 last spring in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational tournament.

Rompza breathed life into UCF's offense minutes into the second half and brought the fans out of their seats. First, the point guard buried a deep 3-pointer off a feed from Clanton. Seconds later, Rompza tipped away a pass and converted a fastbreak layup that put UCF up 47-36 and forced Rhode Island into a timeout.

UCF led 31-25 at the intermission in part because of the pep that Rompza's return brought to the offense. The fiery point guard missed his first three shots, each one eliciting an audible groan from the home crowd. But he repeatedly got into the lane off the dribble to set up others for baskets.

Rompza had three assists in the first half, and his prettiest pass of the night - a no-look, behind-the-back number to Spurlock - didn't even count as an assist because a foul stopped the play.

Spurlock, the transfer from Virginia, benefitted immensely from Rompza's drive-and-kick play at point guard. Spurlock, who had nine first-half points, twice drilled 3-pointers in the first half and had a dazzling one-handed dunk that put UCF in position to take control of the game.

``With Rompza in there we were able to do pretty much what we planned to do all along since the summer time,'' Spurlock said. ``We feel like we're getting back to normal now. The first couple of minutes (Rompza) was saying that it was hard for him to breathe, but it was because he was going a thousand miles an hour and that's what we needed with our tempo. He pushed the ball and did a great job making us all comfortable.''

Once down 18-15, UCF used a 16-7 spurt to close the first half and grab the lead for good. Seven different Knights scored points during that run, showing off this team's depth and versatility.

With UCF's full complement of weapons back on the court, Jones feels the best basketball is yet to come from the Knights. Jones said he felt UCF peaked too early last season when it started 14-0 and hit a midseason drought. Now, the coach feels that the Knights are just about to hit their strides.

``I'm happy with how we've played because we've battled a lot and been through a lot,'' Jones said. ``We've been through a lot of adversity. Anytime someone tells you that your quarterback (Rompza) isn't going to be with you for 12 games and you're still 10-3, we've made some strides. We have to grow from how we've come together and played. How we respond in the second half of the season will be the key this time.''

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