Kelly's 30 Points Lead UCF past ECU 64-61

Stats (PDF)

GREENVILLE, N.C. – The UCF men's basketball team earned its first road conference victory of the season as the Knights topped East Carolina 64-61 on Wednesday night to improve to 11-4 on the season and 2-1 in American Athletic Conference competition. C.J. Kelly led the way for the Knights, posting a career-high 30 points while gathering a trio of rebounds and an assist.

"We battled through a lot of adversity tonight, but our guys hung in there, showed a lot of composure through different swings of runs they were making, I like what we did at the end," said head coach Johnny Dawkins.

Not much happened in the first five minutes of the contest as the Knights held a slim 7-5 lead. From there, the Black and Gold went on a bit of a run, scoring 10 of the next 15 points in the ballgame, six of which belonged to Kelly.

Back and forth action ensued on both ends of the floor as the Pirates begin to claw their way back from a 17-10 deficit. ECU pulled even at 18-18 and then took a 21-20 edge with 8:31 to go. Their lead swelled to a game high six points in the next three minutes, hitting three of their next four shots.

The score stood at 27-25 after a pair of Taylor Hendricks free throws, an ECU free throw, and a Darius Johnson three pointer. Nobody on either side scored for the final 4:14 of the first half, sending UCF into the locker room trailing at the break for just the fifth time this season.

Kelly led all scorers with 11 points at the half, shooting four-of-five from the field and three-of-four from long range.

The Knights had a quick surge out of the locker room, scoring two straight buckets to go on top 29-27 and force an early ECU timeout.

The Pirates took a brief 34-33 lead with 14:31 left in the game after taking advantage of a Knight turnover. It was their final lead of the night and it lasted 20 seconds as Johnson went the other way and made a layup to put UCF back in front for good.

Kelly made his final three-pointer of the game with 12:21 left to give the Black and Gold a 40-34 advantage. The rest of the way, Kelly imposed his will driving into the paint and drawing fouls. After not making it to the line in the first half, he went eight-for-ten from the charity stripe down the stretch, achieving his career high while at the line with 27 seconds to go to put the Knights up 62-58.

ECU made a quick layup the other way to trim UCF's edge to two. Kelly again went to the line and sunk his 29th and 30th points of the evening to put the Knights up four. The Pirates drew a foul going the other way and made just one of their two free throws to make it 64-61. The second free throw was an intentional miss, giving ECU a final chance at a game-tying bucket. The Pirates got two looks at it from beyond the arc but couldn't sink either, giving UCF its second conference win on the year.

The Knights have won 15 straight games against ECU, with the last loss coming back on Mar. 12, 2015 with an 81-80 final in overtime. UCF will face the Pirates one final time as conference mates in the last game of the regular season slate, hosting ECU on Mar. 5 at 2 p.m.

Kelly is the first Knight to score 30 points since Brandon Mahan posted 32 in UCF's upset win at No. 15 FSU on Dec. 19, 2020. No member of the Black and Gold had gotten to 25 points since Darin Green Jr. tallied 27 on Dec. 30, 2021 vs. Michigan.

"He stayed aggressive," said Dawkins of Kelly. "I thought he was focused throughout the game. I think he got going early and once he got going, we kept him going with things we were running to make sure he stayed involved. I thought he stayed aggressive throughout."

Kelly's previous career high of 27 points came almost exactly two years ago, back on Jan. 2, 2021 on the road at Vermont. He helped his then-Albany squad to a 63-62 victory, going eight-for-seventeen from the field, three-of-ten from three and eight-of-nine at the line. Wednesday's contest saw him finish nine-of-thirteen shooting including four-of-eight from beyond the arc.

As a team, the Knights shot 43.1% from the field, the 10th occurrence in 15 games where they've shot better than 40%. The Black and Gold held ECU to 35.1% from the field, improving on an already top-25 ranked season average of 38.7% coming into the night. The Knights entered the contest with the 23rd ranked field goal percentage defense and 18th scoring defense, holding foes to 60.4 points per game.

The Knights return home for two straight games, hosting SMU on Sunday for a 2 p.m. tip on ESPNU before hosting Memphis, who is receiving votes in the most recent AP poll, on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m.

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