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Men's Basketball Outlasted by Ole Miss, 70-68

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – The start of the UCF men’s basketball team’s inaugural Big 12 conference schedule is still just under four weeks away, but the Knights on Sunday received an early taste of the level of competition they’ll be facing each night.

The affairs came down to the last possession of a contest that featured 10 lead changes, including six in the second half, but the still-undefeated and receiving votes Ole Miss Rebels outlasted UCF by a 70-68 final score at Addition Financial Arena Sunday evening.

“We played against a very good basketball team, one that challenged us in a lot of different areas. We’ll grow from it,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “Our guys did a good job defensively, especially in the second half, of being disruptive to them. We make a few more plays, the game goes in another direction.”

A tale of two halves saw the Knights (6-3) overcome a seven-point halftime deficit and outscore Ole Miss (9-0) 38-33 in the final 20 minutes, including a 23-13 second-half advantage in the rebound column.

UCF held a lead with as little as 4:24 remaining in the second half, when junior guard Darius Johnson drove to the paint and finished a layup to close a Rebels advantage to 58-57 and immediately forced an Ole Miss turnover on the other end.

He gave a heave to fifth year guard Shemarri Allen, already breaking down the floor, and watched as his teammate put home a dunk that pushed the Knights ahead, 59-58.

The sequence encapsulated one of the better all-around games authored by Johnson on the young season, as the guard finished with a career-high-tying 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting (56 percent), three assists and a season-high five steals.

Sunday’s effort also marked the second time in his last three games that saw Johnson shoot at least 50 percent from the field, after he finished with 19 points on a 7-of-12 display from the floor in leading the Knights to their Dec. 2 win over Lipscomb.

“Darius was terrific,” Dawkins said of Johnson. “He did a great job on both sides of the ball, he was active defensively. Offensively he made a lot of really good plays. That’s what I see in practice from him every day, so for me it’s no surprise.”

The Knights on the defensive end of the floor held the Rebels to just two field goals in the final four minutes and six in the second half, in representation of the team’s overall defensive improvement from the first half to the second.

After Ole Miss shot 50 percent in the first 20 minutes (14-for-28), UCF held the Rebels to just 35 percent in the final 20 on 6-of-17 shooting. The effort represented the fifth time this season the Knights held an opponent to six or fewer field goals in a single half.

The Rebels’ consistent ability to get to the free throw line aided the team in staving off the Knights’ late surge, though, as the team drilled 20 of its 28 tries from the charity stripe in the final 20 minutes, while UCF converted just 12 of its 17 attempts.

“We have to defend without fouling,” Dawkins continued. “We can’t have that. We have to be more disciplined in our defense, and we have to understand when we’re getting close to the bonus, we cannot put people on the line and give them those opportunities.”

UCF hung tough with its unbeaten opposition throughout the first half, opening up an early 8-5 lead on the back of four points from Johnson and three more from the combination of Jaylin Sellers and Omar Payne.

Sellers converted a pair of tries from the line that gave the Knights a 10-7 advantage with 14:22 to play before Johnson came through with eight straight points as the teams approached the halfway point of the opening 20 minutes. Sellers' 11-point evening marked the guard's ninth straight game in double figures to begin his Knights career.

Fifth year guard Antwann Jones, making his UCF and season debut, added three more from the line before Payne and Johnson combined to record the Knights’ final seven markers of the first half to keep UCF in the contest, trailing 37-30 at halftime.

“We had some really good looks and we’re a good-shooting team. We have to knock those shots down when the opportunity presents itself,” Dawkins said. “We had a tough night shooting tonight and we left a lot of potential points on the board. That’s promising for us, because if we go forward, I can see where we can grow from learning from this experience.”

In addition to Johnson’s career day and Sellers’ double-digit effort, fifth year guard Shemarri Allen recorded a season-high 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting, representing his second game this season in double figures.


UCF will utilize the upcoming week to prepare for its next contest against Maine Dec. 18. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. ET from Addition Financial Arena, and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.


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