ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - For the first two months of the season, UCF's still relatively young men's basketball team had to learn how to deal with success and a first-ever rise into the national rankings. Now, 17 games in, the Knights are having to learn how to handle something else completely new to them: A losing streak.
UCF scored the first basket of the game, but otherwise never led against a red-hot East Carolina team before 8,044 fans at UCF Arena. The Knights did make two spirited runs - one just before halftime and another late in the second half - but they could never overcome East Carolina in a 74-62 loss, UCF's third in a row over the past two weeks. The loss was the first home defeat of the year for the Knights, who are now 10-1 at the UCF Arena.
``Embracing success, you always worry about that. But we have to understand that teams are playing at a very good level against us and we have to change that momentum. That's the next step that this basketball team has to make,'' UCF coach Donnie Jones said. ``This team hasn't dealt with adversity like losing. Usually it happens in the first part of the year and not January. We've dealt with success and now this is a different monster mentally. Some of these guys need confidence and some of them need to soul-search a little bit. But we'll get back to work. I have great confidence in this basketball team.''
UCF, 14-3 overall and 1-3 in Conference USA play, got hit hard early when East Carolina (10-8, 2-2) made its first six shots from beyond the 3-point line. And for the game, the Pirates made 10 of 17 3-pointers to quell any UCF rally.
The Knights got 16 points and four 3-pointers from Isaac Sosa and 12 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots from sophomore center Keith Clanton. Marcus Jordan, who entered averaging 18.7 points per game in C-USA games, was held to 11 points and four assists when East Carolina's defense collapsed to keep him out of the lane.
UCF trailed by as much as 15 points early on, but made a charge to get back into the game by scoring the final 10 points of the first half. Sosa had a layup and a 3-pointer, while A.J. Rompza - who played 26 minutes despite a sore foot - added two free throws and a running 3-pointer just before the first-half horn.
``We didn't do a good job of guarding the 3-point line early on which is always an emphasis for us,'' said senior guard Taylor Young, who had a 3-pointer late in the game to keep UCF close.
``We got deep in a hole because they shot the ball so well. ... We had some momentum and we were fired up coming into the second half and compete. We got two early buckets and thought we were in it, but for whatever reason we let it slip again.''
UCF made another valiant charge to get back to within 65-58 with 3:08 to play, but it would get no closer because of an inability to get stops and self-inflicted errors. The Knights were often their own worst enemy, missing 14 free throws that resulted in numerous empty possessions.
``We had a chance to get back in it. But the thing that was disappointing is that you miss 14 free throws and that just kills your momentum,'' Jones said. ``We could never get the momentum to continue in the second half (because of the free throw misses). We had some opportunities to score on 50-50 rebounds on loose balls, but our guys didn't get those. We've been talking about making toughness plays, but we didn't do a good job with that either.''
Jones said defenses have adjusted to how the Knights play after the success early in the season and it's on his team now to make some changes. Foes are collapsing inside to keep Jordan out of the paint for drives to the hoop and they are being more physical inside with Clanton. And they are limiting the effectiveness of UCF center Tom Herzog (five minutes, two points).
``It hurts us because we're getting nothing out of that (center) spot right now,'' Jones said. ``We're depending on Keith and Marcus like we have all year long to score for us and when they're not doing that it makes it difficult for our basketball team.''
But Young said that this team has far too much heart, grit and talent to let go of a season that has already been special in so many respects. He said he's confident that UCF can go back to work, dig its way out of this losing streak and start a winning spree again soon.
``We just have to keep practicing, keep growing and tweak some things. We have to get better. There's no need for us to tuck our heads and feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to get back to work and get better.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.