ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With Marcus Jordan driving, A.J. Rompza swiping passes and Keith Clanton doing all of the dirty work, the UCF Knights didn't miss being without head coach Donnie Jones and didn't miss a beat Wednesday in their Conference USA opener.
UCF was forced to play without Jones stalking the sidelines, but still made all of the plays necessary to defeat Tulane 60-53 and win at UCF Arena for its 14th straight home victory - a streak that dates back to last season.
Associate head coach Shawn Finney replaced Jones and saw the Knights get 19 points from Jordan, 11 points and five steals from Rompza and an all-around solid performance from Clanton. UCF (11-3 overall, 1-0 in C-USA play) never trailed after falling behind 4-3 and surged ahead by as much as 17 points in the second half before coasting in for the victory.
The Knights were in their first game without Jones, who is sitting out the first three conference games as part of a school-imposed penalty following an NCAA investigation. Finney, a friend of Jones' for 20 years and previously a head coach at Tulane, was quick to credit UCF's absent head coach after Wednesday's win.
``You've got to say that Coach Jones prepared this team (to win) without any coaching,'' Finney said. ``We came out and executed the game plan and they were prepared, they played hard, smart and together. And they really shared the basketball, and that was a big key to the game. The guys executed what we wanted both offensively and defensively.''
Clanton scored eight points and still needs eight points to become just the ninth player in school history to hit the 1,000-point plateau. However, Clanton needed just a half to get the six rebounds necessary to reach 600 boards for his career. He finished with 12 rebounds and added five blocks and four assists.
Tulane (12-3 and 0-1) entered the game riding its best start to a season since 1994-95. The Green Wave upset Georgia Tech in early December and came into Wednesday with the second most victories of any school in Conference USA.
But Tulane was no match for a UCF team that hasn't lost at home since a 63-62 buzzer-beating defeat to Memphis last February. The Knights are 9-0 at home this season, but must go on the road on Saturday at East Carolina.
``It's huge to get that first win in conference play, but now we've got to build upon it,'' said P.J. Gaynor, who had eight points, eight rebounds and made both of his 3-point shots. ``We've got to bring the energy every game.''
Finney wouldn't admit to having any added butterflies for Wednesday's game as the acting head coach and said the biggest adjustment was going from suggestion mode to making actual decisions.
``It's obviously different because the last five years I've been an assistant coach,'' Finney said. ``I've been sitting over there with a different agenda, not calling every play and making suggestions. Tonight, I had to make decisions versus suggestions, so that was the biggest difference of being an assistant coach to being a head coach.''
Up eight at intermission, UCF pushed the lead to 17 following Gaynor's consecutive 3-pointers. From there, Jordan, Rompza and Clanton finished off Tulane. Rompza hit all three of his 3-pointers, while Jordan repeatedly got into the lane for tough layups in traffic.
UCF led 29-21 at the half, but the advantage could have been much larger had the Knights been able to build upon a lead. UCF surged ahead 27-13 on a 3-pointer by Rompza. But as has been the case most of the season, the Knights relaxed and let Tulane back into the game somewhat in the final minutes of the first half.
Jordan buried a step-back 3-pointer on the first shot of the game, and then spent the rest of the first half aggressively attacking the rim. He repeatedly broke down the defense off the dribble and converted four layups in the first 20 minutes. He had 11 points in the first half for a Knights offense that made just 35.1 percent of its shots in the first 20 minutes.
``Early in the year I kind of started settling for my jump shot when I made my first couple of them, so I just wanted to be aggressive,'' Jordan said. ``I just wanted to get into the paint, draw fouls or get buckets for myself or my teammates. A.J. did a good job of sliding (open for shots) and P.J did a good job of it, too. Everybody was kind of playing off me and I was able to get shots for my teammates.''
Playing his second game of the season, Rompza was his usual active self in the first half. In addition to his 3-pointer, the senior point guard had two assists and two steals - one of which he grabbed before diving into the courtside seats. Finney said UCF's energy is different with Rompza on the court, and that was evident again in Wednesday's win.
``A.J. has been practicing so well all fall and it's great to see a young man carry it over from practice to the games,'' Finney said. ``He's been shooting so well making threes, he's handling the leadership role and he's passing the basketball. You can see that he brings great leadership and energy to our team with what he does on the court. He's a big key to this team. Our team is really benefitting from him being out on the court.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.