UCF Senior 'First Times' Advance Expectations

I thought it'd feel different playing Wembley
Eighty thousand singing with me
It's what I've been chasing 'cause this is the dream
When it was all over, I cleared out the room
Grabbed a couple beers, just me and you
Then we start talking the way that we do
Ain't it funny how the simplest things in life can make a man?
Little moments that pass us by
Oh, but I remember
                               --from "First Times" by Ed Sheeran

The third track on Ed Sheeran's latest album is about simple, beautiful moments in music-making, love and everyday life.
"First Times" is not a tune you're likely to hear cranking in the UCF women's basketball locker  room after games.
Yet some of its lyrics help reflect how far these Knight seniors have come now that they played their last home game Wednesday night in a 61-48 win over Tulsa at Addition Financial Arena.
It's been a four-, sometimes five-year journey for these UCF veterans, with a Covid year thrown in the middle to confuse the question of years of eligibility.
But it's safe to say that Masseny Kaba, Diamond Battles, Tay Sanders, Brittney Smith and Company all came to Orlando when there were plenty of those first times yet to be experienced and accomplished.
They were recruited by almost-new UCF coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson and her staff not all that long after the Knights (under the prior regime) won only 10, nine and seven games (respectively) starting in 2013-14.
Kaba and the others had no reason for any memory of the last UCF NCAA appearance in 2011. And Coach Abe's first two teams both won more than 20 games but fell in the AAC Championship semifinals and played in the Women's NIT.
In 2018-19 Battles and Smith were true freshmen. They had their own "first time" that year, playing in the AAC title game against second-ranked Connecticut. They also began a string of what should have been four consecutive seasons (assuming 2021-22) in the NCAA Championships had Covid not intervened in 2019-20.
And in 2021-22?
Not. Done. Yet.
Sixth-year Knight assistant coach Isoken Uzamere remembers the early years at UCF.
"During the recruiting process players like Masseny and Diamond and Brittney came here to win a championship," she says.
Yet at that point the Knights hadn't banked all that much evidence to back up those championship hopes.
"No we had not," Uzamere says with a smile.
"But from the first year we came here we turned things around pretty quickly, even with some crazy times.
"Diamond and Britt essentially were part of our second recruiting class. We kind of got our feet wet, but we weren't where we wanted to be--so they were a huge part of that shift, that change.
"Their thought was, 'Okay, we can make a postseason tournament, but now we can make the NCAA Tournament.'
"When they first got here they had to get adjusted to the hard work. I will never forget the very first individual workout with Diamond--and it was hard. She looked at me and said, 'I don't think I can do this. I think I'm going home.' And I said, 'Diamond, you got this.'
She said to me, 'You said we could win but you didn't tell me this is what it would take.' She was struggling. We said, 'We recruited you for a reason. You can do this. You said you wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament. You said you wanted to win a conference championship. Okay, this is what it takes.'
"The first year they had fun—they did not really have any pressure on their shoulders. Now as seniors, they realize, 'This is possible because we've seen the hard work and we've done it.'"
Adds Smith, "I got here a couple of years into (Coach) Abe getting here and every single year has gotten better. I didn't know what to expect when I got here, but I knew we had a really good team and really good coaches.
"I knew we had a really great future ahead of us, I knew during my time here we were going to get a championship. I really believed in that."
This group has elevated expectations—in part by opening the window offered when UConn left the American Athletic Conference. The UConn presence also got the Knights used to the underdog mentality—and that helped make this season's first poll rankings and regular-season AAC crown (a couple more first times) that much sweeter.
Once UConn went to the Big East two years ago, "We knew it was our time," says Uzamere. "You lick your chops—this is it. Two plus two equals four—it makes sense. If we continue to do the same things, we're going to get the result we want. We all just knew.
"It's a level of confidence because of the things that had been done in past years. It's all the work behind the scenes. The success this season is not just what was done this year in the preseason. It was the foundation planted when they got here.
"We had finished fourth, third, second. Then the stars aligned and when UConn left, the feeling was, 'This is our time. This is what we've worked for.'
"This group knows what the seniors before them did and the barriers they broke. And they can handle it."
And defense is a huge part of it, with the Knights now leading the nation in scoring defense at 48.1 points per game by opponents (Tulsa scored 48 Wednesday).
Over the last five games combined the Knights in 11 different quarters have limited opponent point totals to single digits (including all four periods in a 68-31 victory at Temple).
UCF came into the game Wednesday rated second nationally in field-goal percentage defense at .334—and held Tulsa to a .347 clip.
"You can't control whether the ball goes in every day," says Uzamere. "Sometimes you can't buy a basket. (Wednesday was one of those nights—UCF shot 36% in defeating Tulsa.) But the thing that's consistent is our defense—we know we can count on it every single game."
Abrahamson-Henderson used to motivate her Knight teams by pointing out week-to-week challenges based on goals the program had yet to accomplish. As recent years have gone by, it's been harder for the Knight coaches to do that--as their charges have systematically ticked the boxes on that list.
More first times yet for the Knights?
They could happen next week in Fort Worth at the AAC Championship and a week later when the NCAA Championship begins.
Says Smith (she had 12 points and 14 rebounds versus Tulsa, while Battles led the Knights with 14 points), "Over the course of the four years I've been here, we've had set goals and we have the same goals every single year. So after the first year (2018-19), we didn't accomplish (all the) goals.
"We knew what to do and how to work harder in order to reach them. Every single year we worked harder and changed things and we're starting to see results.
"We checked off conference championship. Next week . . . conference tournament. Make it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. 
"It's about progress. We're always trying to get further and further every single year—focusing on one game at a time." 
The UCF seniors hope to leave a legacy that will be tough to top.
The first kiss, the first night, the first song that made you cry
First dance, moonlight, in your parents' garden
The first look in your eyes when I said, "I love you"

I can't wait to see everything that's yet to be
I can't wait to make a million more first times