Men’s Hoops Edges Wichita State in Conference Opener

Stats (PDF)

ORLANDO – UCF men's basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins made a point to prepare his team for the beginning of conference play Wednesday evening, a part of the schedule he knew would bring a unique challenge for his team.
"I've been around long enough to know how it's going to be," he said with a smile. "Everyone's excited for an opportunity, and it's a new season for everybody. No matter how you finished out (non-conference play), everyone's back at 0-0 today. I expect all the games to be very competitive, and guys are fighting for their lives."
The Knights took full advantage of their chance for a fresh start Wednesday, edging the visiting Wichita State Shockers, 52-45, in a defensive clash at Addition Financial Arena and clinching their first win in AAC play and 10th victory overall.
The two schools, both allowing 68 points per game or fewer entering Wednesday's action, battled through a low-scoring defensive struggle of a first half, a period UCF won by just three points despite earning a bit of breathing room halfway through. The Knights (10-3, 1-0 AAC) and Shockers (7-6, 0-1 AAC) traded baskets during the first six minutes of play through the first media timeout with 13:37 on the clock.
"I thought we had some looks at times that we just didn't knock down, looks that we've made a number of times during the season, and they just didn't fall tonight," Dawkins added. "That's part of basketball, you just have to find a way to be successful. We've talked about defending so much; they didn't put their heads down and they kept playing, which gave us a chance to win."
Freshman forward Taylor Hendricks, averaging 15.3 points per game entering Wednesday's action, recorded two of UCF's first three field goals followed by a pair of 3-point shots courtesy of Darius Johnson and C.J. Kelly that gave the Knights an early 12-9 lead at the pause.
"We pretty much won it on our defense. Five-for-twenty-two from three, that usually doesn't happen with us, but there's going to be games like that. You always have to find a way to win," Hendricks said.
Wichita State trimmed the UCF advantage to one on the other side of the timeout, just before Dawkins' squad clamped down even harder on the defensive end of the floor.
The Knights held the Shockers to just one field goal for the next seven minutes of gametime, during which UCF managed a bit of distance on the scoreboard.
Senior guard Brandon Suggs, not one to attempt many shots from beyond the arc yet still shooting over 55 percent from three, drilled the Knights' third triple and paced the team with five points on UCF's 11-4 run that ballooned its advantage to 23-15.
Wichita State fought its way back into the affairs down the stretch, but an Ithiel Horton three-point shot aided in preserving the Knights' 26-23 halftime lead.
"I thought our guys were fairly prepared for that part of it, they looked like they knew what to expect and they came out with the right intensity," Dawkins added of the beginning of conference play. "It just became a very defensive-minded game."
Hendricks and Suggs led the charge to begin the second half, combining for seven points including the team's fifth triple to again widen UCF's lead to 35-27. As the former noted, the Knights found a way to hang on for the win even when offensive struggles ensued.
Clinging to a slim 43-40 lead with under eight minutes to play, Hendricks found the inside of the hoop with another field goal. It was the last field goal UCF would make the remainder of the game.
When their shots weren't falling, the Knights won the game at the free throw line, finishing off their 9-of-10 performance from the charity stripe with six straight made tries from Darius Johnson to ice UCF's second straight win.
"The shot clock was winding down, and I knew we were in the bonus so I had to make something happen," Johnson said. "I didn't see anyone else open, so I had to take matters into my own hands and get to the foul line. I feel like I'm a pretty good free throw shooter and I closed the game out."
Johnson scored a team-leading 15 points, representing the lone Knight to reach double digits, and clinched his fourth straight game with at least 10 points and his sixth such game this season. Hendricks and Suggs both added nine points of their own.
After going winless against the Shockers in their first eight meetings, the Knights have won the last pair of contests, scoring a 71-66 win over Wichita State on Feb. 8, 2022 before earning the victory on Wednesday night.
The Knights have opened conference play with a victory for the third straight season and for the fifth time in Dawkins' seven year tenure.

The Black and Gold never trailed in the game after doing the same against Stetson a week ago in a 73-58 victory.
UCF will now turn its attention toward its biggest test yet, a road matchup against No. 3 Houston on New Year's Eve. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET from the Fertitta Center.

Never miss any UCF Knights news from your favorite team by downloading the free UCF Gameday app right to your iOS or Android phone. The app provides personalized information for men's and women's teams, scores, schedules, loyalty programs and even breaking news. Click here to download the app now.