Men's Hoops Hops Past Jackrabbits in 83-80 Thriller

by Ken Landis

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The UCF men’s basketball team outlasted South Dakota State in the Jacksonville Classic Coast bracket semifinal, pulling out an 83-80 victory late Sunday night. A pair of Jackrabbit free throws with 58 seconds to play put South Dakota State in the lead before the Knights stormed to a strong finish, outscoring the opposition 8-4 in the final 42 seconds.

“We practice those situations during the week [late-game action], so it’s good to see our guys get them and then execute them,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “That’s what you want to see your players do, can we carry it from the practice floor into the game, and tonight we were able to do that. We’re resilient, one thing I know about our team is they’ll keep on coming and keep on fighting, they’ll give us an opportunity every night.”

Fans of both sides may have chewed down to their cuticles in what was a nailbiter until the very end. The biggest lead of the contest never reached double digits and the final 10 minutes saw the lead swell to six just once. The Knights owned the lead for most of the contest, leading the Jackrabbits for 28:08 and trailing in just 8:08 of game time. The largest lead of the contest was owned by the Knights with a margin of eight with 17:06 to go in the second half.

A pair of clutch Darius Johnson lay ins and free throws from Jaylin Sellers and Omar Payne eventually sealed South Dakota State’s fate, but it was Marchelus Avery who led the way throughout the contest, scoring 22 points. Sellers was close behind, scoring 20, and saw his efforts reinforced by Johnson and Payne who also reached double digits, tallying 11 and 10, respectively.

The game was tight from the tipoff, as no team found more than a four-point advantage for nearly 10 minutes of the first half. UCF had control early but saw South Dakota State jump out to what went on to be its biggest lead of the contest at 19-12 to go in the first thanks to a Zeke Mayo three-pointer.

The Knights tied things up at 23 with six minutes left in the first stanza via an Ibrahima Diallo dunk. He posted five points, five rebounds and three blocks, maintaining his status as the Big 12’s leader in blocks per game, averaging exactly three.

The Black and Gold finished the half on a 9-7 run, taking a 32-30 lead into the locker room. Avery had 15 points at the break.

UCF held onto the lead for the first five minutes of the second half. South Dakota State knotted things up briefly at 46 and 48 all. The Knights regained the lead and held onto it into the waning moments of the game. The Jackrabbits were persistent in their pursuit of leaping in front, constantly answering any bucket that UCF added in its attempt to build a bigger lead.

South Dakota State’s consistent pressure finally rewarded them with under a minute to go. A shooting foul from three-point land with 58 seconds to go sent Kalen Garry to the line for his first free throw attempts of the contest. Garry drained the first two but was errant in his third, but the two makes put the Jackrabbits in front 76-75.

The Black and Gold answered on the next possession, as Johnson drove to the hoop and put up a jumper from the side of the lane to put UCF back up by one with 42 seconds remaining. South Dakota State missed a three-pointer the other way, but Charlie Easley collected the offensive board, laid the ball up and in and drew the foul with a chance for one more. He missed the ensuing free throw, but still had put the Jackrabbits back in front at 77-78 with just under a half a minute to play.

Johnson answered with 10 second on the clock, remaining aggressive just as he did the possession before, driving to the lane and sinking a one-handed layup while drawing contact, earning a chance for another point at the stripe. The ensuing and-one chance was no good, but the rebound was grabbed by Sellers who was fouled in the scramble for the loose ball, sending him to the line as UCF was in the double bonus. Sellers converted both free throws, putting the Knights up 81-78.

The Black and Gold fouled the Jackrabbits before they got a chance to put a shot up with six seconds remaining, avoiding a potential game-tying triple. They sunk their two free throws, chipping the deficit back to one. South Dakota State tried their best to clog UCF’s inbound play and nearly succeed, but a foul was called as Payne collected the rock in between a double team. The two free throws were true from Payne, putting UCF up once more by three. One last three-point heave from South Dakota State at the buzzer fell by the wayside, advancing the Knights to the Jacksonville Classic championship game.

Both teams shot north of 55% from the field and 35% from three in the second half, filling up the net on both ends of the floor. UCF scored 51 points in the second to South Dakota State 50. The driving force to the Knights’ victory may well have been their 14-0 points off turnover differential in the final frame. The Black and Gold turned South Dakota State over 16 times while only surrendering the ball a total of five times in the contest. UCF entered the contest ranked 13th in turnovers per game, averaging 19. The Knights snatched a dozen steals, improving on their average of 10 per contest which ranked 37th in the nation to begin the day.

Avery’s 22 points were just four shy of a tie of his career high and gave him his fourth 20+ point game of his career. His four made three-pointers marked a new career best for him. Sellers posted his third 20+ point game as a Knight and has 15 or more points in all four of UCF’s contests thus far. Sellers earned six 20+ point games through the first 62 games of his career and now has added three in his last four. He averages exactly 20 points a game which trails only Kansas’ Hunter Dickinson in the Big 12, who averages 22 per contest. Sellers has tallied 80 points over the last four games, which is the most points for him over a stretch of that length. Payne cracked double digits for the first time as a Knight, marking his ninth double-digit performance in his career. Johnson tallied his third double-digit scoring game this season and added four assists in the process, bringing his career total to 207 and moving him within 61 of a tie of 10th place on UCF’s all time assists leaderboard. Thierno Sylla earned his first career start in the contest and played 15 minutes, grabbing five rebounds and two steals while scoring two points.

The Knights are right back in action on Monday for the championship game in the Coast bracket at the Jacksonville Classic, facing a new member of their old conference. UCF tips off against Charlotte at 8:30 p.m. on FM 96.9 The Game and streaming on PassThaBall Live for a chance to bring a trophy back to Orlando. The 49ers entered Sunday as the No. 13 team in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 56 points per game. They held George Mason to 49 points in their semifinal victory, only improving on their top-15 mark.