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Men's Basketball Bests Rattlers, 69-56, in Walker's Return

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – As the UCF men’s basketball team’s non-conference schedule draws to a close, the Knights received a metaphorical shot in the arm in more ways than one.

A balanced distribution of scoring throughout the lineup showcased the team’s ever-improving depth, and fifth year forward CJ Walker made his season debut in his return from a preseason injury as the Knights utilized a second-half surge in topping the visiting Florida A&M Rattlers, 69-56, at Addition Financial Arena Thursday night.

“Our guys did a good job, especially in the second half, of really focusing on what we wanted to do on both sides of the ball,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “We were able to build a lead, and that’s what I wanted to see our guys do, is how you build and maintain a lead.”

In collecting their eighth win of the campaign, the Knights (8-3) saw four players hit double digits for the second time this season, joining the team’s 83-80 win over South Dakota State Nov. 19. UCF also improved to 37-12 in the month of December under Dawkins, including a 27-4 mark at home in that span, on the strength of a second half that saw the Knights rack up 43 points.

A stout defensive effort to begin the contest held the Rattlers (2-8) to just two points through the first 10:15 of gametime, while Jaylin Sellers, DeMarr Langford Jr., Darius Johnson and Omar Payne combined to record UCF’s first eight points.

Walker made his first appearance of the night, and the season, just under five minutes into the affairs, and the Knights soon after rattled off an 11-2 stretch, punctuated by a 3-point shot by Shemarri Allen, after Florida A&M tied the game at 10.

“It was a long process, a process that I had to trust and have faith in,” Walker said of his return. “It wasn’t easy, I had to grind every day not knowing if I’d play this year. It’s about staying positive; the most important thing is I’m healthy now. I’m just happy to be healthy and be back out there.”

Allen concluded the Knights’ opening 20 minutes with his second triple in the half’s final four minutes and finished the evening with his second double-digit outing in his last three games, 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting (50 percent), including a 3-of-5 display from beyond the arc.

His three 3-point field goals represented a season high, and his most since drilling three triples Dec. 29, 2022, with Kansas City at Denver.

After taking a 26-24 advantage into the locker room, Sellers gave UCF’s offense a quick second-half ignition, scoring five straight points out of the break to extend his team’s lead to 31-24. The junior transfer concluded his evening with a game-high 15 points, extending his streak of consecutive games in double figures to 11 straight games to begin his Knights career as he continues his chase of Aubrey Dawkins’ 18 such contests in the 2018-19 campaign.

“I thought we had some good shots, and we missed some good looks,” Dawkins continued. “That’s part of basketball, I told our players, that’s why you have to win on defense. You can never predict when you’re going to have a night when the ball isn’t falling. If you stick with our principles, things that we work on every day, which is defense first, you can win a game when you’re not shooting it as well.”

After trading baskets throughout the first half of the final 20 minutes of play, Langford Jr., Sellers, Ibrahima Diallo and Darius Johnson combined to author a 10-0 run straddling the midway point of the half, a stretch that also saw Walker score his first point of the season with a converted free throw.

After widening the lead to 54-42 with 9:03 remaining, the Knights retained command of the game the rest of the way, led by eight combined points from Diallo and Sellers. Behind Sellers’ 15, Johnson and Marchelus Avery both added 13 points in front of Allen’s 11.

Diallo continued his torrid defensive pace as well, as the Big 12’s leading blocker entering play with 25 on the year (2.50 per game) recorded two more to add to UCF’s resume as the squad with the most blocks in the conference (5.9 per game entering play).

The victory also pushed Johnny Dawkins’ record against in-state foes to 25-10 at the helm of the Knights, including a 3-2 mark in such games this winter. With the programs’ last meeting coming in 2013, Dawkins also recorded his first career win against Florida A&M with the Knights.

“We have to look at how to get better from this,” Dawkins added. “We had some timely stops and we turned them over 11 times in the second half, and we got some momentum from that as well. Happy to be able to learn from a win, and I think we’ll grow from this experience.”


Following a week off in observance of the winter holidays, the Knights will conclude their non-conference slate against Bethune-Cookman at home Dec. 29. Tipoff from Addition Financial Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m., and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.


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