Knights Ride Momentum, Stifle Leathernecks 70-37

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ORLANDO – After the UCF Knights' Nov. 7 season-opening double-overtime defeat, head coach Johnny Dawkins tasked his team with defensive improvements. Following the team's Friday win, Dawkins challenged the group to cut down on the 20 turnovers it surrendered.
UCF's early-season theme of implementing immediate fixes carried over into its third game of the young season Monday night, as the Knights committed just three turnovers in the first half and a total of eight on the night en route to securing a comfortable 70-37 win over the Western Illinois Leathernecks at Addition Financial Arena.
The stifling performance on the defensive end marked the first time since UFC's 52-37 win over SMU on Feb. 17, 2018 that the Knights allowed 37 points or fewer in a game. The Knights also yielded 37 points or fewer for the third time since the 1983-84 team defeated Villanova-Miami by a 33-23 final score in the 1984 Sunshine State Tournament hosted in Lakeland, Florida.
"It was a good win for us," Dawkins said. "I thought we were really hooked up defensively, I thought we were a little sloppy offensively at times, even though the assists didn't show it, can clean that up. And we can get better, but it's early in the season."
The team's refined ball security allowed for the Knights to better finish the opportunities they created on their offensive end. Thanks in part to 50 percent shooting from the field through the first 20 minutes of play, UCF built a commanding 19-point advantage entering the locker room.
Holding an early 8-7 lead 3:45 into the game, C.J. Walker drilled the Knights' first triple of the game following a C.J. Kelly 2-point jumper, a sequence that aided in opening the floodgates.
Kelly knocked down UCF's second 3-pointer just over a minute later, and the Knights took command near the halfway point of the period. UCF limited the Leathernecks to just four points on two field goals during the final 11:14 of the first half and battered Western Illinois with 21 points on the opposite side of the floor.
"Just making the easy pass, making the right plays, we're all happy about the turnovers tonight," said Michael Durr, who finished as the Knights' second-leading scorer with nine points. "I just feel like we all played the right way tonight. (The chemistry) is coming together well. We have a lot of new guys, transfers, freshmen. On top of that, a lot of guys have been out in the preseason. Where we're at right now, I think we're at a good spot."
Six different Knights found the scoresheet prior to Kelly's second 3-pointer of the night, and his team's third, with 3:35 left, and Durr and Brandon Suggs punctuated the period with five points between them to give UCF a 37-18 lead at the break.
The Knights further widened the lead in the opening minutes of the second half, again on the foundation of stout defensive play. Leading 48-29 with just under 11 minutes to play, UCF authored a 13-0 run led by four points from Suggs and three more from C.J. Walker that ballooned UCF's advantage to 61-29 with six and a half minutes on the clock. Kelly also added two more points in that stretch and finished with a team-leading 17.
"We've made huge strides defensively," Dawkins continued. "I think that was the biggest emphasis after the first game. To their credit, they turned it around. They started really locking in and focusing on things we wanted to do, and they've had better defensive performances because of that."
On the heels of an impressive 52 total rebounds against Florida State on Friday night, the Knights snagged 38 more on Monday and are averaging an even 43 per game through their first three contests. UCF also continued its recent trend of defending its home court, improving to 73-22 at home since Dawkins' arrival and 15-4 on its home floor since the beginning of last season.

Poohpha Warakulnukroh brought the fans to their feet when he checked into his first collegiate game late in the second half. The walk-on, who was also named to the All-Name First Team on Twitter, hit one of two free throws before hitting a three-pointer on his first and only shot of the night, causing the fans to burst into thunderous applause.
The Knights will now prepare for their first road trip of the season, traveling to the Baha Mar Convention Center in Nassau, Bahamas for a trio of games this weekend. UCF will first match up against Oklahoma State on the neutral court at 7 p.m. on Friday night.

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