Men's Hoops Grounded in Space Game by No. 8/6 Iowa State

by Ken Landis

ORLANDO – Two of the nation’s top defenses clashing produced what many may have expected, a physical clash at both ends of the floor that resulted in plenty of stops and turnovers. The battle ended with No. 8/6 Iowa State making a statement in the final five minutes, holding the UCF men’s basketball team without a made shot from the field to escape Orlando with a 60-52 victory.

“I think both teams played the game at a high, high level. Really impressed with how they defend, how they stay connected, and really impressed with coming down the stretch how well they were able to make plays. They make it difficult on every single possession you have in the half court…that’s what they do. We had our looks. I thought we had a couple of looks, we just didn’t knock them down in that last four-minute segment, but part of that is the wear and tear and the pressure they put on you 36 minutes prior to that. I thought we were doing the same thing to them a little. I thought we had several good looks where we were kind of open, and in a game like that those shots have got to go down.”

Johnny DawkinsUCF Men's Basketball Head Coach

Saturday’s contest doubled as the Space Game, the third installment of the player, staff and fan-favorite promotional night. The Knights, better known as the ‘Nauts on a Space Gameday, were a perfect 2-0 when donning the Canaveral Blue and Black.

The contest started as advertised, a defensive battle filled with plenty of steals and turnovers. The ‘Nauts coughed up the rock nine times over the first 11:10 of the opening half. UCF’s defense was no slouch either, forcing seven turnovers in that same amount of time.

UCF found itself down 19-12 with just under nine minutes to play. Shemarri Allen sunk the first of two free throws and missed the second, but DeMarr Langford Jr. was on the spot to clean up the miss. The ball whipped around to C.J. Walker who buried a triple, slicing the Cyclone lead to just three at 19-16.

After Iowa State pushed the lead back to six, UCF was able to trim it to two with a pair of free throws from Thierno Sylla and a lay-in by Jaylin Sellers, making it 27-25 with 5:15 remaining in the fist. The Cyclones didn’t go away, turning around a quick 7-0 run to build the lead back to nine. The ‘Nauts cut the lead back to seven by the halftime buzzer as Langford cashed in on an Iowa State turnover, making the score 36-29.

UCF turned the ball over a total of 14 times in the first while Iowa State gave it up on 10 possessions. The possessions that weren’t turnovers often went in for both sides as the Cyclones shot 59.1% over the first 20 minutes while the ‘Nauts made 52.2% of their looks.

UCF started the second half with a floor slap on defense, drawing a roar from the crowd of 9,392 strong, the fifth highest attended game in program history. The slap locked the ‘Nauts in as they proceeded to open the half with multiple stops while clawing their way back into the ballgame. UCF had the first three buckets of the stanza as Ibrahima Diallo laid in the first make of the half. Sellers added a make of his own and converted on the following and-one chance, making the score 36-34.

An Iowa State dunk separated UCF’s 5-0 run to start the half with another, as the ‘Nauts made a move to pull in front. Darius Johnson laid one up and in to bring UCF back within a pair. He then made a couple of free throws to tie the game at 38-38. Omar Payne drove to the rim and was fouled as well, making one of two from the line, but more importantly, capping a 10-2 run to put the ‘Nauts in the lead at 39-38 with 13:57 remaining.

The next 10 minutes saw the lead change hands a few times as both sides had to grind out points against the opposition’s top 10 defense. UCF’s defense entered the contest ranked 10th according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index while Iowa State’s checked in at No. 2 in the nation. The Cyclones took over the lead following Payne’s free throw, but the ‘Nauts snagged it back at 46-44 with 8:21 to go. The struggle to pull away continued as Iowa State answered with a three, only to be answered by another Johnson bucket. The see-saw affair continued but found UCF up 50-49 with 5:08 to play as Walker made a tough drive to the hoop.

It was anyone’s ballgame with under five minutes to go. Iowa State jumped back in front at 51-50 after a pair of free throws with 3:05 remaining. The clock continued to tick as another jumper found the bottom of the net for the Cyclones, going up 53-50. The trend continued as a fastbreak layup and foul sent Iowa State up six, forcing a timeout from UCF with 1:46.

The ‘Nauts’ woes continued following the timeout. After not making a basket for over three minutes, two turnovers were committed on back-to-back possessions. Iowa State cashed in on one of them, extending its lead to eight with 1:05 to play. The shots continued to go awry for UCF, and the only points to go on the board before the final horn were two Johnson free throws, resulting in a 60-52 final.

The ‘Nauts went without a field goal for the final 5:08 of gameplay. Three-point shooting came back to haunt UCF in the end, as Walker’s three-pointer back in the first half was the only one to go down on the night. The ‘Nauts finished 1-for-19 from beyond the arc, making just one three-pointer for the first time since a tilt with Cincinnati on Jan. 11, 2020. The ‘Nauts finished with a respectable clip from the field, shooting 42.6%, but the 0-for-10 mark from the three-point line in the second half thwarted any attempt to pull off UCF’s fourth ranked win of the season.

Both defenses left their mark on their opposition as 39 total turnovers were generated in the contest. UCF turned the ball over a season-high 22 times while forcing Iowa State to gave it away 17 times. The last time UCF forced 17 turnovers was on the road at BYU, a 90-88 loss back on Feb. 13. The ‘Nauts have forced 15 or more turnovers a dozen times this season. Saturday evening saw Iowa State score 22 points off of UCF turnovers, the second-most against the ‘Nauts this season, second to only the contest at No. 13 Miami where the Hurricanes scored 23 points off turnovers. UCF has now allowed 20 or more points from its turnovers in back-to-back games.

Johnson snagged four steals for the fourth time in the last five contests, improving on a 2.26 steals per game mark that ranked 16th in the nation entering the evening. He now sits at 150 career steals, jumping into seventh place all time at UCF in thefts, passing Ruben Cotton, who had 149 from 1979-80. Johnson is already at a career-high for steals in a single campaign, tallying 65. Saturday’s contest was the 12th time this season that Johnson has recorded three or more steals and the 18th time he has led UCF in that category.

As a team, UCF compiled 10 or more steals for the 11th time this season, snatching 10 on Saturday.

Johnson accounted for two of UCF’s five assists on the evening, which tied a team-low not seen since Jan. 20 at No. 5 Houston. Johnson eclipsed the 300 career assists mark on the evening and tied a personal season best, matching his 106 assists tallied during the 2022-23 campaign.

Johnson was one of three to score in double digits on the evening, netting 10 points while Sellers led the team with 13 and Allen close in tow with 11.

The ‘Nauts typically come out on top when equaling or exceeding their opponents in rebounding. The trend didn’t apply against the Cyclones, as UCF grabbed 31 rebounds, including 11 offensive, to their 26. The 26 rebounds by Iowa State are tied for the second lowest by a ‘Nauts’ opponent on the season, trailing only the 22 boards surrendered at Texas on Jan. 17.

After facing the nation’s No. 2 defense according to ESPN’s BPI, UCF will host the No. 1 team in the metric, welcoming No. 1 Houston for Senior Knight on Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip. It will be the final home game of UCF’s inaugural run through the Big 12 Conference.

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