For UCF, Defense Won Championships

NCAA Tournament Central

The phrase is cliché – defense wins championships.
For the UCF women's basketball team, it's not just a saying.
During UCF head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson's tenure, UCF has been among the best in the nation defensively. In fact, the Knights led the nation in scoring defense at the end of the 2020-21 season – allowing just 50.5 points per game.
"Defense is our mentality, it's our identity," Brittney Smith told the media following UCF's semifinal win over SMU. "When we get stops, we're doing what we've got to do, the game is just so much more fun. We give each other energy and it's a really good time."
After a solid nonconference slate that saw the Knights compile an 8-2 record with the two losses coming to Top 15 teams, UCF headed into conference play with a clean slate and a goal.
The Knights opened conference play holding Tulane to a season-low 47 points, nearly 30 points below the 74.6 points per game the Green Wave entered the contest averaging. A road win over ECU was followed by a close victory over Houston at home and then a 16-point victory over then-No. 24 South Florida.
The Knights finished a half-game behind South Florida for the regular season championship in 2021 and lost to the Bulls in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
This year would be different.
UCF was off to a 4-0 start in league play, riding high as the ESPN Team of the Week and earning votes in both major polls.
But then a postponed contest at SMU gave UCF an unexpected six-day break between games. When the Knights took the floor in Cincinnati on Jan. 22, the vibe was different. When the final buzzer sounded, UCF was on the short end of the scoreboard and were now 4-1 in The American.
Perhaps the expectation of an undefeated season was too lofty a goal. But for a roster loaded with returners that remembered the bitter taste of coming up short a season ago, they knew that was the only way to ensure their conference championship.
So now what? What would be the response to this setback?
"I just wanted to get (Masseny Kaba and Tay Sanders) a championship, honestly," Diamond Battles told the media following The American championship game. "Just all the hard work that we put in and the respect that we didn't get. It played a huge factor for us, especially for me, because we deserve so much more. So we just had to come and take it because we knew it wasn't going to be given to us."
We just had to come and take it.
And they did.
Since the Jan. 22 loss at Cincinnati, UCF has gone on a 13-game win streak – the longest win streak in program history. After closing January with wins over Tulane, Wichita State and Temple, UCF held a 7-1 record in league play and
That's when the fun started.
Since Feb. 5, only two teams have scored over 50 points against UCF – Memphis on Feb. 5 and Tulsa on March 8.
The Knights have played 10 games during that stretch. Five of their opponents were held below 40 points and one failed to reach 30. They again rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, but this year they're allowing just 47.5 points per game.
"When we're locked in as a team, it's really hard to score against us," Battles said following the 61-28 victory over the Mustangs in the AAC semifinal. "I'm not going to lie. When we're locked in, everybody's on the same page; we all have energy; we're pressuring the ball. It's just really a fun atmosphere. When we have defensive pressure and we are playing defense like UCF plays defense, it creates our offense and we just go."
That energy carried UCF to its first regular season title since 2005 and, in a poetic way, the Knights clinched the championship and No. 1 seed in The American Championship with a 74-39 win over the Bearcats.
With the regular season title in hand, UCF entered the conference tournament looking for the sweep. The Knights topped Tulsa in the quarterfinal and shut down SMU in the semifinal to set up a rematch with South Florida for the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
No one expected the title game to be easy. It was a back-and-forth contest in which neither team was able to really pull away.
But South Florida held the lead at the end of the first quarter, at halftime, and entering the fourth.
"All the captains we were like, defense," Tay Sanders told the media following The American championship game. "If we want this, we've got to play defense. We've got to fight, play together, stick together."
UCF held the Bulls to just six points in the final 10 minutes. In fact, South Florida didn't score its first point of the period until the 5:23 and by the time the Bulls scored again (with 54 seconds remaining in the game), the Knights had already built up a nine-point lead and could taste the tournament title.
Confetti fell once again. T-shirts and hats were handed out; photos were taken and nets were cut.
The defense is the headline, rightfully so, but the driving force behind UCF's success is something a little deeper.
How did the 2021-22 UCF women's basketball team come together after that loss at Cincinnati? How have they been able to put together a 13-game win streak to win two championships and earn the highest NCAA Tournament seed in program history?
Well, this group isn't just a team.
It's more.
"We're family," Sanders said. "Each day, each practice, each game we just became closer and (stuck) together even when we were down. Like we are sisters. We fight. We argue. But we're always going to stick together, we're going to laugh about it. We wanted (a championship), so we did it."
UCF enters the 2022 NCAA Tournament as the No. 7 seed in the Bridgeport Region, marking the highest seed in program history. The Knights open against No. 10 Florida in the first round at 3:30 p.m. on March 19 in Storrs, Conn.
"We got our championship but we're not done yet," Battles said. "We still have goals. We can soak it in for a moment, but then it's on to the next game and we've just got to stay locked in on that."