Men's Hoops Rallies to Win Jacksonville Classic

by Ken Landis

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Every superhero needs his theme music, and Darius Johnson is deserving of the hottest tracks on the Billboard Top 100 after scoring a career-best 25 points Monday night, including 17 out of the halftime locker room to lead the UCF men’s basketball team to a 74-71 overtime victory over Charlotte and earn the Jacksonville Classic MVP.

Johnson didn’t do it alone though, as Jaylin Sellers and Ibrahima Diallo posted double-digit efforts, the defense stood tall when it needed to most and numerous clutch free throws helped lead an Avenger-esque comeback. The Knights overcame a deficit of eight in the second half and erased a six-point deficit with just 1:14 remaining in overtime to power to a third straight victory.

“Our guys have big hearts,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “They found a way because they’re always looking to make plays and we never feel like we’re out of a ballgame. When you have that type of belief, you can come back from some deficits and we were able to do that tonight.”

The Black and Gold built a nine-point lead eight minutes into the game, going up 15-6 on a Sellers triple. Charlotte crept back into the contest by going on a 10-0 run over the next five minutes to pull ahead 16-15.. The Knights battled back and forth with the 49ers for the remainder of the half but saw themselves down 26-22 at the break. Both teams shot south of 32% from the floor in the first half and just one three-pointer was made between the two sides.

UCF was 4-14 when trailing at halftime a season ago, but its fate was different this time around. It didn’t immediately appear that way though, as Charlotte dictated the pace of play in most of the second half, sinking bucket after bucket to keep constant pressure on the Knights. The 49ers built their biggest lead of the contest at eight with 11:03 remaining in regulation.

After scratching and clawing its way back into the contest over the next six minutes and trimming the Charlotte lead to one possession multiple times, UCF finally broke back into the lead with 4:47 to play with a Marchelus Avery layup to make it 53-52. Diallo added a layup in the paint to extend the lead to three but saw Charlotte answer with a triple 40 seconds later to square things up.

The Knights jumped back in front with a Johnson lay in, only to be answered with a jumper on the other end with two minutes remaining, knotting things at 57-57. After a Johnson miss, Charlotte retook the lead on a layup with 1:14 to play. A miss by both teams led to Johnson collecting a rebound with 18 seconds left before being fouled in the scramble, sending him to the line with UCF in the double bonus. Johnson knocked down both free throws, tying the contest up at 59. One more UCF defensive stand denied Charlotte the win and sent the contest to overtime.

Sellers swished the first jumper of the extra segment. The 49ers retaliated with five points of their own, jumping in front by three. Avery sunk a free throw to crawl back within one before Charlotte added a layup at the other end to go up by four with 2:20 remaining. Sellers again came up clutch on the very next possession, banging home a three to pull back within one. The 49ers answered with a three of their own 30 seconds later and then capitalized off a UCF turnover on the ensuing possession to add another two points, going up by six with 1:14 left on the clock in overtime.

Foul trouble haunted Charlotte down the stretch, as Sellers was fouled, going to the charity stripe to knock down two free throws. The 49ers drew a blank on the next possession after a timeout, and once again, the Knights were fouled. This time it was Johnson who stepped up and cashed in on the two shots with UCF in the double bonus, pulling UCF within two at 71-69 with 35 ticks left.

A Knights foul with Charlotte in the single bonus sent them to the line with for a one-and-one opportunity. The first free throw clanked off the rim to Diallo who collected his 14th rebound in a double-double effort. He was fouled and sent to the line at the other end for two shots. A career 45% free-throw shooter entering the weekend, Diallo buried the first to trim the deficit back to one but missed the second. Sellers was on the spot though, collecting the errant attempt for a huge offensive rebound. Diallo made up for the missed chance at the stripe, eventually getting the ball in the paint putting the ball up and in for two second chance points and a 72-71 lead.

Charlotte took a timeout with 7.5 seconds remaining following the Diallo basket and were set to inbound in front of their bench. The inbounder struggled to find an open man and forced a pass toward midcourt that was batted away by Sellers and scooped up by Johnson, who was immediately fouled. Johnson took care of the pair of free throws at the other end as the Knights stormed from behind one final time to leave St. Augustine with hardware.

Johnson earned a career-best 25 points on the evening, topping his previous best of 24 achieved against Miami last season. Ten of his points on Monday night came from the charity stripe while adding six rebounds, four assists and three steals to his impressive performance.

Sellers had another game in which he was north of 15 points, scoring 19 while reeling in six rebounds. He has scored 15 or more points in all five of UCF’s contests and has 19 or more in four of the five.

Diallo finished the night with 10 points and 14 rebounds, earning his fourth career double-double. He blocked exactly three shots for the second night in a row and has swatted aside three or more shots in four of UCF’s five games. He continues to pace the Big 12 Conference in blocks and blocks per game, turning aside 15 shots for an average of three per game.

With the Jacksonville Classic victory, UCF has won three in-season tournaments in the Coach Dawkins era. The first of the trio came in the 2018-19 campaign when the Knights were victorious in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, beating Cal St. Fullerton, Saint Joseph’s and Western Kentucky. Last season, the Knights earned their first win over a Big 12 opponent in program history, beating Oklahoma State in overtime in the Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas Championship semifinals before going on to top Santa Clara in the championship game. This year, UCF fended off South Dakota State and Charlotte for the Jacksonville Classic coast bracket title.

The Knights will be back in action after Thanksgiving, hitting the court at Addition Financial Arena on Sunday at 4 p.m. against local rival Stetson. The contest will be broadcast on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ and available on the radio at FM 96.9 The Game.