Thomas Leads Knights Past Bearkats 67-55

ORLANDO – A gritty double-overtime victory over Samford that saw both teams climb into the 70s during last weekend's Thanksgiving Classic notwithstanding, a rock-solid defensive scheme has served as the crucial foundation for the UCF Knights women's basketball team's undefeated start to the new season.
The group etched another chapter in its storybook start to the young 2022-23 campaign Thursday evening, led by a career night by senior forward Destiny Thomas and another strong team defensive showing as the Knights surged past the visiting Sam Houston Bearkats by a 67-55 final score at Addition Financial Arena.
The winning effort extended UCF's (6-0, 0-0 AAC) season-opening win streak to six consecutive games, one shy of tying the program's all-time record of consecutive wins to start a season of seven straight, a mark set during the 1984-85 campaign under then-head coach Joe Sanchez.
"I think the second half, my team settled down. I felt like we were too slow offensively the first half; the second half, we played our game," head coach Sytia Messer said. "And I think we settled down, got in our offense and executed better in the second half."
Thomas led the offensive charge in the final 20 minutes of play, scoring 14 of her 22 points in the second half and grabbing 18 rebounds throughout the night. Both her 22 points and 18 rebounds marked career-highs as the senior recorded her third straight game with a double-double, her fourth of the season and seventh of her career.
"I'm tired," Thomas admitted after her historic night. "Whew, but I'm happy. It's very exciting. It is going to be up from here, I need to finish my shots better, and offensive rebounds are coming. I just have to finish it."
UCF entered the contest ranking among NCAA Division I leaders on the defensive end, boasting the fourth-lowest opponent field goal rate, at 30.7 percent, and ranking 21st in the nation in overall scoring defense, allowing 52.2 points per game.
At the final buzzer, the Knights had limited Sam Houston (2-4, 0-0 WAC) to 31 percent shooting (19-of-62) from the field and just over their season average with 55 points. UCF also out-rebounded the Bearkats by a 48-33 margin.
"I'm always telling our team, 'We have to talk, we have to communicate, we have to execute,'" Messer continued. "We're going to hang our hats on defense. We've really been stressing to them communication, and at the end, communication was key for us."
On Thursday, the Knights once again demonstrated their resolve, weathering a 15-2 run in the final minutes of the first half to help clinch their sixth win of the year. UCF began its evening on a strong 11-4 run spearheaded by Thomas.
The Knights senior made three of four early tries from the free throw line to aid in igniting the stretch that would see five different Knights find the scoresheet. By the time the arena buzzer sounded to conclude the first 10 minutes of play, Thomas had scored six of the Knights first 16 points.
Senior Mya Burns ballooned UCF's lead to 19-9 with the Knights' first 3-point shot of the game 33 seconds into the period, the first of three UCF triples before halftime. Thomas later added two more points before the Bearkats rattled off its dominant stretch to flip the Knights' 23-11 advantage into a 26-25 deficit.
Rachel Ranke came through in the final two minutes of the half with the final two 3-pointers for the Knights, though, to restore UCF's lead to 31-28 entering the locker room.
"We just decided that we needed to slow down, play our own pace, not let them speed us up, but at the same time play fast and with a purpose," Burns said. "When we did that, we were able to break the pressure a little bit easier and get into our offense."
Thomas took center stage for the Knights throughout a tightly-contested second half, a 20-minute period that saw neither team score more than five unanswered points. She potted eight of UCF's 13 points in the third quarter and six more in the final frame, and a pair of 3-point shots courtesy of Ranke and Burns helped put the game on ice in the final two minutes.
Behind Thomas, Burns and Ranke also reached double-digit points with 17 and 11, respectively, with Ranke drilling three of her seven tries from beyond the arc.
With UCF's four-game homestand in the books, the Knights will begin a stretch of two of their next three games on the road, beginning with a matchup at Auburn with tipoff scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon.