Men's Basketball Wins Fifth Straight, Tops Evansville 76-56

ORLANDO – With each game, head coach Johnny Dawkins' UCF men's basketball team is proving time and again that its 98-95 season-opening, double-overtime loss Nov. 7 was an aberration, rather than what would become the norm.
When Addition Financial Arena's final buzzer sounded to conclude their 76-56 win over the Evansville Wednesday night, the Knights (5-1, 0-0 AAC) not only pushed their win streak to five consecutive games; they also allowed 59 or fewer points for the fifth straight contest.
Such a feat had not been accomplished by a UCF team since the 2003-04 Knights pulled it off from Jan. 5-17, amid a 14-game win streak that would propel the program to the NCAA tournament later that spring.
"We knew it was going to be a tough test," Dawkins said. "I thought early they made it difficult for us. I give them credit for how they defended and their game plan, and we have to be better. We have to start games off better and we have to learn from this experience."
The visiting Aces (1-4, 0-0 MVC) indeed hung with the Knights throughout much of the first half before UCF pulled away with a strong second. Trailing 8-2 just under five minutes into the game, the Knights fought their way back into the contest with a pair of strong runs.
Freshman Thierno Sylla, having earned an extended look early in part due to injuries, drilled a pair of 3-point shots and produced seven points on a 12-3 UCF stretch that gave the Knights their first lead of the game, 14-11, with 11:56 to play in the first half.
"We have so many moving pieces right now, C.J. [Walker] is out again, so we have to work through that," Dawkins added. "Michael Durr, he was out tonight, you're working through that. Now Sylla's having to log more minutes and play a different position than he normally practices. Through all of it, I thought our guys did a good job of adjusting and just listening to what we had to say and trying to execute."
Senior Brandon Suggs contributed two of his own 3-point shots in scoring nine of 11 UCF points that later aided the Knights in opening a 25-15 lead with just under nine minutes to play, but three more Aces triples just before the break kept Evansville close and helped trim UCF's advantage to 35-30 entering the locker room.
"I think we were just feeling good or sluggish," Suggs said of the team's slow start. "Coach Dawkins gave us a hard talk at halftime and we were able to flip it around. In the second half, just getting back and stopping the transition points. We wanted to slow them down and box out and get the boards. I think that changed it."
After Evansville further shaved the Knights' lead to 35-34 in the opening seconds of the second half, Ithiel Horton, who would score a season-high and team-leading 18 points, knocked down the first of his four second-half 3-pointers to lead the charge on a 15-5 UCF run.
UCF's defense once again answered the Aces' final push to close their deficit in the game's final minutes. An 11-8 Evansville stretch brought the Knights' advantage down to 58-51 with 8:13 to play, and UCF then went to work.
The Knights allowed just five more points the remainder of the game, and Horton and freshman Taylor Hendricks combined to score 19 of UCF's final 23 points.
"Just staying together," Suggs reasoned for his team's strong play of late. "We're not worried about the wins, we're just on to the next play. After every game, we're on to the next. We're worried about who we're playing next."
Hendricks posted 16 points of his own and has reached double digits in five of his first six collegiate games. Suggs and Sylla also joined their teammates in double-digit scoring with 11 and 10 points, respectively.
On the other side of a brief Thanksgiving break, the Knights will welcome Miami to Addition Financial Arena at 5 p.m. on Saturday, looking to improve to 21-5 against in-state foes during Dawkins' tenure as head coach.