ORLANDO – Coming off the team’s first loss of the season on the road at then-No. 13 Miami, head coach Johnny Dawkins set the tone for his group.
“Defensively, I challenged them.”
The UCF men’s basketball team rose to the occasion, producing one of the stingiest displays of the Dawkins era Thursday night, toppling the visiting Cal State Fullerton Titans, 72-44, at Addition Financial Arena.
“It was a really good game by our guys,” Dawkins continued. “We responded well from our last outing, I challenged them about taking care of the basketball in both areas that we worked on this week, and I saw improvement. That’s what you want to see this time of year, is getting better in the areas in which you know you have to make improvements.”
In limiting the Titans (1-2) to 44 points, the Knights (2-1) surrendered an opposing field goal percentage of just 23.5 percent (12-of-51 shooting), the lowest allowed by a UCF squad since Nov. 30, 2016, when the Knights limited the Stetson Hatters to a 22.1 percent conversion rate in Dawkins’ sixth game at the UCF helm.
After allowing three consecutive field goals in falling into an early 7-2 hole just under four minutes into the contest, UCF surged past the Titans, allowing just three more field goals the entirety of the opening 20 minutes.
The Knights scored 10 unanswered points in taking their first lead of the night, 12-7, with nine minutes remaining in the first half, including back-to-back made 3-point shots by Shemarri Allen and Thierno Sylla.
“We have to get off to a faster start,” Dawkins added. “The way you get off to a faster start is through your defense. If teams are scoring often it puts too much pressure on your offense. We’re a team that feeds off the ability to force turnovers. We forced 15 tonight, and we’ve recorded at least 15 turnovers in every game we’ve played [thus far].”
Cal State Fullerton on the other end was held without points of any kind for the following eight minutes and 14 seconds after taking a five-point advantage, and a pair of converted free throws by Allen and Omar Payne, accompanied by two Tyler Hendricks points, preserved UCF’s lead until the Knights again caught fire down the stretch.
Led by breakout junior guard Jaylin Sellers’ eight points, UCF authored a 15-5 run to conclude the first half, a stretch that was also made possible by Darius Johnson’s first triple of the game and four Marchelus Avery points in the senior forward’s UCF debut.
Sellers, who finished with a team-high 15 points, recorded his third straight game in double figures to begin the fall campaign, and with 60 points through his first three contests, has scored the most by a Knight in his first three games of a season since Brandon Mahan notched 55 in 2021.
The Knights remained in command of the affairs exiting the locker room following the halftime intermission, answering an 8-0 Titans run with 14 consecutive points of their own to balloon their lead to 46-26 with 13:22 to play. Sellers knocked down his first 3-point shot of the night, followed by another from Avery in the run.
UCF would drill four more tries from beyond the arc down the stretch, including converted attempts by Allen, Sylla, Nils Machowski and Comeh Emuobor in outscoring the Titans 41-26 throughout the final 20 minutes, recording a single-game season high nine 3-point field goals in the winning effort.
Ibrahima Diallo paved the way for the Knights’ interior defense throughout the evening, recording a team-best and season-high five blocks. The San Jose State transfer has paced the team in blocks in each of its first three games this season.
“I knew going in that we were going to have to do a heck of a job focusing in on every defensive possession,” Dawkins said. “I thought for the most part we did that. We were in the right places, we were locked in on those guys, keeping them out of the paint and taking away the three.”
With the Knights’ +51 point differential spanning their first two home games of the fall, UCF has also recorded its best home point differential spanning its first two games since the 2010 season, when the Black and Gold outscored West Florida and Jackson State by an aggregate 95 points.
The Knights will look to take their offensive momentum north to St. Augustine for the Jacksonville Classic, when UCF will square off against South Dakota State to open its two-game tournament showing. Tipoff from the Flagler Gymnasium & Clark Family Court is slated for 8 p.m. Sunday night.
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