John Denton's Knights Inside: Knights Have Much to Play for at Southern Miss

Feb. 10, 2012

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - It's already been a season of firsts for the UCF men's basketball team what with the Knights whipping Memphis for the first time and winning at UAB and SMU for others firsts.

On Saturday, the Knights will be shooting for another first - first place in Conference USA.

If UCF can find a way to win at Southern Miss on Saturday and Memphis losses to UAB - all possibilities considering what has already transpired this week in C-USA play - the Knights would find themselves owning a share of first place atop the league.

That scenario became a possibility on Wednesday night when UCF (18-6 overall and 7-3 in C-USA play) defeated Marshall 67-60 in an impressive home victory and C-USA leader Southern Miss (20-4 and 7-2) was stunned on the road at UAB. Southern Miss and Memphis (17-7 and 7-2) sit a half-game ahead of UCF atop the C-USA standings.

Southern Miss ended UCF's 16-game home winning streak on Jan. 28 with a 78-65 victory. The Knights dominated the first half of that game, building a lead as large as 12 points, but couldn't slow down a hot-shooting Southern Miss team after halftime.

Now, after avenging an earlier loss this season to Marshall on Wednesday, the Knights are hoping to get revenge against Southern Miss at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

``They definitely stole one from us here at home,'' UCF sophomore forward Tristan Spurlock said. ``We're going to enjoy this (Marshall) win and then we'll be focused for Southern Miss.''

The Knights could be facing an angry Southern Miss team after the Golden Eagles likely saw their chance at being nationally ranked end with Wednesday's loss at UAB. Southern Miss shot just 41 percent from the floor and missed 13 of 16 shots from 3-point range.

UCF is 3-2 on the road in league play this season, winning at East Carolina, UAB and SMU. The Knights haven't won in Hattiesburg, Miss., since 2008 and are 1-3 there all-time. Southern Miss is 10-0 at home this season, and UCF coach Donnie Jones knows his team will have to play well to notch another road victory.

``It's a challenge, but if you want to compete to be in the upper echelon of this league then you have to be able to get yourself ready to play against the best team. Right now they are playing the best basketball of anyone and it's going to be a great challenge for us. It'll be a great opportunity for us to go on the road and get ready for this challenge. But we're looking forward to the challenge.''

Usually reliant on the playmaking skills of Marcus Jordan, UCF defeated Marshall on Wednesday by getting contributions from all over the roster. Keith Clanton opened the game with 11 straight points and finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. Sophomore forward Isaiah Sykes had 15 points and 10 rebounds and his dazzling chase-down block of a layup attempt at the rim made ESPN's Top 10 plays of the night. Spurlock gave the Knights a huge boost off the bench with 13 points, six rebounds, three dunks and a 3-pointer. And Jordan scored 15 points, none of them bigger than his 3-pointer in the final seconds as the shot clock expired to secure the victory.

Jones knows it will take a similar effort where the Knights are getting multiple efforts and contributions from several players to defeat a powerful Southern Miss team.

``(Against Marshall) we got too quick with our offense with too many one-pass shot and two-pass shot possessions and guys were forcing it and trying to do too much,'' Jones said. ``But we calmed down and executed and got some good shots. We played together much better as a team. That's something we have to keep doing.''

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