Website Photo TemplateWebsite Photo Template

Men's Hoops Falls to South Florida, 83-77, in NIT First Round

by Ryan Ladika

ORLANDO – As if the added pressure that often accompanies postseason play in any sport wasn’t enough, emotions ran higher than normal at Addition Financial Arena Tuesday evening.

Couple a start time two hours later than the UCF men’s basketball team’s usual 7 p.m. tipoff with a first-round NIT matchup with the Knights’ longtime rival South Florida Bulls, and the result was a palpable tension within the confines of UCF’s home arena that proved the conflict between the two programs remains as strong as ever despite the Black and Gold’s addition to the Big 12 Conference last July.

The fourth-seeded Knights (17-16, 7-11 Big 12) nearly overcame it all, from a strong contingent of visiting Bulls (25-7, 16-2 AAC) fans who made their presence felt throughout the night to a South Florida lead that, at one point, grew as large as 15 points.

A barrage of 3-point field goals provided the Bulls early momentum that remained with the visiting bench the duration the evening, though, as UCF fell in its tournament first-round tilt, 83-77, seeing its inaugural season as a member of the Big 12 draw to a close with their Tuesday defeat.

“For playing USF for the first time, seeing them on film did not do them justice for how strong they are offensively and their ability to shoot the basketball,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “Seeing a team make nine threes in the first half, they did a good job of moving the ball and sharing it, and playing off each other. They made us pay when they got their looks.”

Amid dueling ‘UCF’ and ‘USF’ chants from the crowd, the Knights, hosting their first postseason tournament game since topping Colorado 79-74 in the NIT in Orlando March 15, 2017, were outscored 49-35 in the first half before exiting the halftime break with new offensive life.

Senior forward Marchelus Avery drilled one of the Knights’ two 3-point field goals in the first half and paced his team with nine points in the opening 20 minutes, while junior guards Jaylin Sellers and Darius Johnson both notched seven points in the frame.

“We came out sluggish and let them get us rattled,” Sellers said. “They came down and we didn’t follow the gameplan. They came out and hit threes, they made nine in the first half.”

On the heels of the halftime break, the Knights clawed their way back into the affairs on the strength of an explosive 20-8 second period-opening run spanning the half’s first seven minutes, seeing the Bulls’ lead trimmed to just two points in the process.

“We really locked in and focused on what we need to do to take away the 3-point shot from them,” Dawkins added. “We started getting stops. Our strength has been playing in the full-court, getting out and getting to the basket. That’s why we press and do those things, because it gives us a chance to score the ball with easier baskets.”

Sellers, who finish the evening with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-18 shooting from the field, accounted for UCF’s first two points of the half and 11 of UCF’s 20 points in the stretch. Johnson also knocked down the Black and Gold’s first and second triples of the half, and fifth-year forward Ibrahima Diallo also tallied the remaining three points.

Johnson’s first make from beyond the arc, coming with 13 minutes to play in the contest, ignited a short but fiery sequence of landed blows from both sides. The 3-point shot proved to be the first of five straight as the two teams went back and forth, with the Black and Gold seeing Avery and Theirno Sylla also connect from deep.

Thanks to seven more points from Avery down the stretch, including his second 3-pointer of the half, UCF hung with the Bulls to the end, but the Knights in the end could not overcome their rivals’ 13 converted tries from beyond the arc.

“I would say we underachieved this season,” Sellers continued. “The group of guys we had in that room is probably the best team I’ve ever been on. We have to have people who follow the gameplan and listen to (coach Dawkins). If we had more of that, the season might have gone another way.”


Follow UCF men’s basketball on X (@UCF_MBB), Instagram (@UCF.MBB) and Facebook (/UCFMensBasketball).


Never miss any UCF Knights news from your favorite teams by downloading the free UCF Knights app right to your iOS or Android devices. The app provides personalized information for men’s and women’s teams, scores, schedules, loyalty programs and breaking news. Click here to download the app now.